Future Perfect: an optimistic look at the future of networked politics

I've read and enjoyed innumerable Steven Johnson books; he's one of those great science writers who can gather together disparate phenomena from the technological world and tease out of them a coherent story about what's happening to the world right under our noses.

His latest, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, is no exception. Johnson proposes that people who believe in the Internet are not techno-utopians, but rather "peer progressives" -- people who believe that progress is possible when peers work together through non-hierarchical, networked systems.

Johnson lays out the case for peer progressivism as being neither of the right nor the left. It shares some of the right's beliefs in markets -- the idea that the distributed intelligence of lots of people produces better outcomes than centralized decision-making. But it shares some of the left's belief in collective, state-driven spending -- the idea that systems like the Internet don't get produced by advantage-seeking commercial firms (which want to make walled gardens), but rather by governments trying to attain some public-interest goals.

Using this lens of public-spirited, state-sponsored development to create market-driven, individual-centered systems, Johnson lays out his case, showing how the Internet has enabled radical shifts in city management, political campaigning, newsgathering, arts funding, and entrepreneurship. Each of these chapters is well-drawn, and Johnson's careful to label his uncertainties when he has them, rather than trying to shoehorn the facts to fit his thesis.

I was particularly struck by the chapter on news-publishing, in which Johnson suggests that the Internet has demonstrated a capacity to produce fine-grained, intelligent, well-thought-through coverage of various subjects. He suggests that tech news -- the most mature news-subject on the net -- is a template for future subjects. The early days of the Web were particularly hard on tech publications, which struggled to remain relevant with monthly publications in the age of up-to-the-minute Internet coverage, and to continue to pay the bills as online new sources expanded the advertising inventory by orders of magnitude. But over time, a kind of stability emerged, an ecosystem of news coverage that beggars anything of the pre-Internet age. Johnson suggests that the net isn't inherently great at covering tech, but that it was just the first of many news niches the net will cover, and that in time, it will be a model for overall networked newsgathering (he also mentions studies showing that newspaper readers are more likely to inhabit an echo chamber of bias-confirming news than online news junkies).

This is a refreshing, optimistic, level-headed read, and the idea of "peer progressive" is a good one, with the potential to get people thinking outside the Dem/GOP, left/right boxes.

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age