Case for Progress in a Networked Age
* Book: Steven Johnson. Future, Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.
Video introduction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKHDIXn5ZcE
- 1 Description
- 2 Discussion
- 2.1 Peer Progressives and the TIMN concept of David Ronfeldt
- 2.1.1 Emergence of peer progressives
- 2.1.2 Networked individualism and cooperative individualism
- 2.1.3 Peer networks vis à vis (and versus) hierarchies and markets
- 2.1.4 Peer progressives in action — all over the map
- 2.1.5 Networks as solutions
- 2.1.6 Toward new political ideologies and philosophies
- 2.1.7 Toward a new +N sector
- 2.1 Peer Progressives and the TIMN concept of David Ronfeldt
- 3 Review
"Is there a new political philosophy emerging from things like open source software development; massive community sharing hubs like Wikipedia, Kickstarter, and Reddit; peer-to-peer social networking; experiments in "Liquid Democracy," and the rapid spread of resource sharing tools like ZipCar, AirBnb and Car2go? Is it time to start talking about replacing the "welfare state" with the "partner state"? "Future, Perfect" is must-reading for people who believe in the power of open, collaborative peer-to-peer networking to achieve real social progress." (https://www.facebook.com/events/265579086895096/)
"Future Perfect goes to great lengths to separate the promise of peer networks from some naive faith in Internet liberation. The main lines of its argument arose in part out of two book-length studies of peer collaboration in the 18th and 19th centuries: The Ghost Map and The Invention Of Air. My last book, Where Good Ideas Come From, ended with a survey of hundreds of peer-produced innovations from the Renaissance to today. The deep roots of the idea date back to reading Jane Jacobs on the “organized complexity” of the city in my twenties, which ultimately led to my arguments for decentralization in my 2001 book Emergence. I’m giving Morozov the benefit of the doubt that he just hasn’t bothered to read any of those books, since he doesn’t mention them anywhere in the review. But if you added up all the words I’ve published on peer network architecture, I wager somewhere around 90 percent of them are devoted to pre-digital forms of collaboration: in the commonplace book or the 18th-century coffeehouse, or urban neighborhood formation, or the traditions of academic peer review, or in the guild systems of Renaissance Florence. If Morozov were only a little less obsessed with the Internet himself, he might have some very interesting things to say about that history. Instead, he has decided to reduce that diverse web of influences into a story of single-minded zealotry. He’s like a vampire slayer that has to keep planting capes and plastic fangs on his victims to stay in business.
The point I tried to make explicit in Future Perfect is one that I’ve been implicitly making for more than a decade now: that peer collaboration is an ancient tradition, with a history as rich and illustrious as the more commonly celebrated histories of states or markets. The Internet happens to be the most visible recent achievement in that tradition, but it is hardly the basis of my worldview. And there is nothing in Future Perfect (or any of these other works) that claims that decentralized, peer-network approaches will always outperform top-down approaches. It’s simply a question of emphasis. Liberals can still believe in the power and utility of markets, even if they tend to emphasize big government solutions; all but the most radical libertarians think that there are some important roles for government in our lives. Peer progressives are no different. We don’t think that everything in modern life should be re-engineered to follow the “logic of the Internet.” We just think that society has long benefited from non-market forms of open collaboration, and that they’re aren’t enough voices in the current political conversation reminding us of those benefits. For peer progressives, the Internet is a case-study and a role model, yes, but hardly a deity. We would be making the same argument had the Internet never been invented." (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112336/future-perfects-steven-johnson-evgeny-morozov-debate-social-media)
Peer Progressives and the TIMN concept of David Ronfeldt
Here are the major areas where Johnson’s themes parallel and overlap with TIMN:
Network forms of organization are on the rise.
They and their proponents are altering all areas of society.
Hierarchy and market forms of organization will endure, though altered.
People will treat networks — not just governments or markets — as solutions.
New political philosophies and ideologies will emerge.
But there are some areas where his observations and speculations fall short of TIMN:
TIMN implies that a new sector will grow around the network form. Johnson’s write-up does not detect this, though I suspect it would appeal to future peer progressives.
TIMN offers a quadriform understanding of society and its future prospects. The view in Future Perfect remains triformist — though a kind of triformist-plus.
This post discusses all that. Until now, the writings that parallel TIMN the most have been those of Michel Bauwens and others associated with P2P theory. Compared to each other, Bauwens is well to the Left; and Johnson seems to be moderately left-of-center, a liberal centrist. This pleases me, since TIMN depends on its kinds of notions spreading across the political spectrum. I’m still waiting for a comparable voice on the Right, but so far its voices don’t seem to “get” the network form to a great extent.
Emergence of peer progressives
As in the case of TIMN (e.g., here and here), Johnson’s departure point is the rise of network forms of organization made possible by the new information technologies. By now, of course, that is the departure point for myriad writings about the information age. What’s singular about Johnson’s analysis is his focus on “peer networks” propelled by “peer progressives” — the latter term being his major contribution.
I and many other analysts have long wondered about the prospects for peer-to-peer networks in all areas of society. But to my knowledge this is the first time that someone has coined an attractive apt name for actors who believe in network forms of organization, strategy, and technology, and who also operate according to positive social values that amount to a new philosophical or ideological orientation.
As Johnson explains in a recent post at his blog about the book,
- “I wrote Future Perfect in large part to capture all the thrilling new experiments and research into peer collaboration that I saw flourishing all around me, and to give those diverse projects the umbrella name of peer progressivism so that they could be more easily conceived as a unified movement. But I also wrote the book with the explicit assumption that we had a lot to learn about these systems.” (source)
Here’s a string of quotations from the book that show Johnson’s take on the concept of peer progressives — who they are, what they believe:
- “As I spent more time watching and thinking about this emerging movement, I began to realize that its political values did not readily map onto existing political categories. The people who most interested me were wary of centralized control, but they were not free-market libertarians. They believed in the power of competition, but they also believed that some of society’s most important achievements could not be incentivized with economic reward. They called themselves entrepreneurs but worked mostly in the public sector. They were equally suspicious of big government and big corporations.” (pp. xxxv-xxxvi)
- “We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.” (p. 20)
- “The peer progressive believes that the social architecture of the distributed network is fundamentally a force for good in the world, on the order of other related institutions, such as democracies or marketplaces. And the peer progressive believes that the Internet has been the dominant role model and breeding ground for peer networks over the past decade or two.” (p. 110-111)
“After all, peer progressives have a very clear set of values that draw upon the older tradition of progressive politics. They believe in equality, participation, diversity. There's nothing laissez-faire about their agenda for progress. They take the social architecture of the peer network and direct it toward problems that markets have failed to solve.” (pp. 113-114)
- “To be a peer progressive, then, is to live with the conviction that Wikipedia is just the beginning, that we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, government, health, social communities, and countless other regions of human experience. … That is a future worth looking forward to. Now is the time to invent it.” (pp. 213-214)
In other words, peer progressivism is as much about network-oriented values as it is about organization and technology. It’s also about how values, organization, and technology all fit together. For peer progressives favor peer networks because such networks embody values that best suit such a form of organization: diversity, equality, freedom, democracy, sharing, pooling, openness, and collaboration along with competition. All this starts to fill in what Arquilla and I saw as the “narrative level” that networks require to function well (according to our Networks and Netwars volume, 2001, Ch. 10).
The value that comes up the most is diversity. Peer progressives value diversity so highly because seeking diverse inputs should assure smarter, more flexible, innovative thinking:
- “The problem-solving capacity that comes from diverse networks is one of the cornerstones of the peer progressive worldview.” (p. 98)
- “One of the key values of peer progressivism is intellectual and professional diversity; groups that draw on different conceptual frameworks consistently outperform more single-minded groups.” (source) According to Johnson, peer progressivism is very future-oriented and will grow to become a unified philosophy that is new and original. It’s still nascent and inchoate, but it’s gaining enough impetus in enough places that it will eventually turn into a wave (p. xxxvii).
In all these regards, Johnson’s observations overlap nicely with TIMN and its implications for the emergence of the +N part. The concept of peer progressivism adds a new kind of focus for +N that I’ve been hoping to see crop up eventually somewhere.
Networked individualism and cooperative individualism
Johnson wondered about other trendy terms for what he was observing (e.g., “net utopians” and “netarians”). But none seemed correct, so he coined and settled on “peer progressives.” Yet his term bears some relation to another recent term that he doesn’t mention: “networked individualism,” and its cognate “cooperative individualism.” Neither of the two is as apt as his term, but they help illuminate points that are embedded in his term yet not as fully laid out.
The first is from sociologist Barry Wellman, a scholar of social network analysis. His point is that Americans are “moving from a society bound up in little boxes to a multiple network – and networking – society” (source). I gather his is not meant to be a political concept, though it has some political implications. (For more, see his co-authored book here, as well as Clay Spinuzzi’s review here.)
The second comes from activist David Bollier, an advocate of commons perspectives. Bollier’s concerns are eminently political, yet based on a forward-looking theoretical insight.
It is that advocating for the commons
- “asks us to transcend some of the familiar dichotomies of modern life – “public” vs. “private,” “individual” vs. “collective,” “objective” vs. “subjective” – and to begin to see these dualisms in a more integrated, blended form.
“Cooperative individualism” is one shorthand that I like to use.” (source)
What they and fellow analysts seek — even more than Johnson — are terms that bridge and balance between individualism and collectivism, as well as between competition and collaboration, in ways attuned to the rise of network forms of organization. Kevin Carson, a P2P market anarchist, has added (here) that “stigmergic organization” is crucial, for stigmergy means interactive inputs by individuals that help coordinate and modify the whole: “So stigmergy is the highest realization of both individualism and collectivism, without either diminishing or qualifying the other in any way.” Good point — though the term does not seem suited to common parlance.
Also, while Johnson says his term reflects aspects of libertarianism and anarchism along with progressivism, he says little about two other isms that have long figured in discussions about progressive information-age actors: communitarianism, and more so, cosmopolitanism. Some peer progressives seem in tune with those isms as well. But little matter — Johnson’s term resonates the best, in my view.
Peer networks vis à vis (and versus) hierarchies and markets
Like TIMN — not to mention many other frameworks (source) — Johnson analyzes the rise of network forms of organization on their own merits and in relation to the two most established forms: hierarchies and markets. He is sensibly insightful regarding the evolving nature of all three forms.
As Johnson says (p. 194), “The conviction that peer networks can be a transformative force for good in the world is perhaps the core belief of the peer-progressive worldview.” And by “peer networks” he means much the same as what others (myself included) have meant by all-channel, peer-to-peer, full-mesh, rhizomatic, and/or distributed networks — not just any networks, but dense networks of fully interconnected peers, allowing for diverse values and views to be expressed, sorted, pooled, and processed.
To depict his point, he draws (p. 12) on a classic RAND publication by Paul Baran, the “father of the Internet,” that contrasts three network designs: centralized (single-hub, hierarchical), decentralized (multi-hub, heterarchical), and distributed (so decentralized and all-channel that no hubs appear). In a metaphor that runs throughout the book, then, Johnson associates the first design with hierarchy, calling it the “Legrand Star” after a misguided late-19th century French design for its state-run railroad system. And he associates the third design with peer networks, calling it the “Baran Web” since it corresponds to Baran’s original design for the Internet. Thus, much of the book is about areas of society where traditional hierarchies — Legrand Stars — are being outperformed and/or superseded by peer networks: Baran Webs.
In my TIMN view, that’s a good highly-readable metaphor for contrasting hierarchies and networks. But it’s also a bit misleading: Not all hierarchical institutions reduce solely to the Legrand-Star design; many today are closer to the decentralized design, for which he does not offer a metaphor. Moreover, many valuable types of networks don’t quite correspond to the Baran-Web design. Peer networks are very important, but it’s not yet clear which network designs will prevail where in the future. Even so, his theme is engaging, and his treatment is nuanced-enough to mitigate my quibbling.
In general, then, Johnson sees — and by implication, peer progressives see — that many large institutions are failing, and “being replaced by interlinked networks of smaller, more nimble units” (p.24). Indeed, according to a remark about the media landscape that applies to other areas, “the simplest way to understand what has happened over that period is this: the overarching system of news is transitioning from a Legrand Star to a Baran Web, from a small set of hierarchical organizations to a distributed network of smaller and more diverse entities.” (p. 79) Yet, much as peer progressives are disillusioned with “the older models of Big Capital or Big Government” (p. xxxvii), Johnson has carefully noted (here) that “we need to avoid the easy assumption that decentralized, peer-based approaches will always outperform centralized ones.” He is quite aware that pragmatic hybrid designs may be required in some areas, combining mixtures of bottom-up and top-down dynamics.
As for the other form in his triad — markets — they are not designated with a stand-out visual metaphor, but the book is as much about networks vis à vis markets as it is about hierarchies.
Johnson finds particularly strong affinities between peer progressives and market libertarians, for he says (p, 28), with a nod to Friedrich Hayek, that
- “True markets display almost all of the core principles of the peer-progressive worldview. ... To be a peer progressive is to believe in the power of markets.”
Yet, he clarifies (p. 29), peer progressives don’t have entirely the same views about markets as traditional libertarians. Peer progressives are as keen about individualism, but without being as anti-state. For peer progressives believe that states can be crucial for enabling and protecting individualism.
Moreover, peer progressivism does not claim that markets can provide answers to all needs and problems; where market failures arise, it prefers to look for network solutions instead:
- “Instead of turning a blind eye to market failures, it assumes that these problems are widespread, and actively seeks them out as the central focus of its agenda. Instead of building a large government agency to combat the problem, it tries to build a peer network around it, a system of dense, diverse, and decentralized exchange.” (p. 30)
Furthermore, peer progressives have values that are at odds with standard libertarianism about private property, ownership, and motivation (pp. 129-131). Peer progressives prefer to keep ideas circulating, without worrying so much about ownership. That’s “because the open exchange of ideas is a core attribute of all peer networks” — peer progressives want to reward people not only for coming up with good ideas but also for sharing them (p. 131). In a way, then, the more a peer-network enterprise — e.g., Kickstarter, Wikipedia — operates like a gift economy, the better (p. 45-46). Financial rewards are not the paramount incentives. That’s partly why such enterprises are able to address and solve problems that markets previously fumbled. Johnson is particularly keen to note cases where “a diverse network working outside the marketplace establishes a worthy goal, and an even more diverse network sets out to find a way to reach it” (p. 149).
In short, even as peer progressives extol the virtues of peer networks, they still see virtues in preserving hierarchies and markets as ways of making societies function well. They tend to be more critical of hierarchies than markets, but they recognize that well-functioning societies require balanced combinations of all three forms of organization. All of which substantiates that Johnson’s points parallel and overlap with TIMN." (http://twotheories.blogspot.com/2013/06/in-favor-of-peer-progressives-how-where.html)
Peer progressives in action — all over the map
Johnson recognizes that the rise of the network form had spectacular expression in a series of political and social movements since the 1990s. Indeed (p. 48), “To date, the most prominent examples of network architectures influencing real-world change have been the decentralized protest movements that emerged over the past few years: MoveOn, Arab Spring, the Spanish revolution, Occupy Wall Street.” While Johnson’s book doesn’t mention TIMN (and why should it), the parallels are so close that in one spot it even reads like a paraphrase of our (Arquilla & Ronfeldt) earlier work on information-age conflict (as clarified here and in Appendix B here). That’s when Johnson quotes (p. 106) from his book Emergence (2001), saying about the anti-WTO Battle-of-Seattle protests in 1999, “that there can be power and intelligence in a swarm, and if you were trying to do battle against a distributed network like global capitalism, you're better off becoming a distributed network yourself.”
But those movements involved so many ideological and other tendencies that none offers a seminal expression of peer progressivism. The movement that finally did so was the one in 2012 to block a congressional bill known as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). As Johnson puts it, “SOPA marked the single largest attack to date on the core principles of the Baran Web” by the established proponents of top-down Legrand Stars — the federal government and largest media corporations (p. 200). Indeed, “the SOPA rebellion made manifest the power of peer networks as a form of Digital Age activism” (p. 201). It helped that believing in peer networks was not a key value for either the Democratic or Republican political party — making it easier for a bipartisan consensus to form against SOPA, since neither party needed to claim it as its own victory (p. 203). As a result (p. 204), “The protests made perfect sense: they were the first great awakening of the peer-progressive movement.”
Yet, as Johnson wisely notes (pp. 48-49), “these grand spectacles … have turned out to be something of a distraction, averting our eyes from the more concrete and practical successes of peer networks.” The meat of his book is thus about problem-solving enterprises that have arisen because of the network form. Favorites include Wikipedia, Kickstarter, New York City’s 311 phone system, and ProPublica. Some are in the private sector, others the public sector; they arise in business, government, and civil society. Some are for-profit, others non-profit; some run by public employees, others by private enterprise. His point, much like TIMN, is that the peer network “is a practical, living, evolving reality, one that is already transforming dozens of different sectors.” (p. 52)
He admires New York’s 311 system at length (esp. pp. 63-66), for such peer-based solutions enable people to call attention to public problems. He’s also careful to discuss that it’s not a pure peer network, for the network has a headquarters. But it’s still more bottom-up than top-down — a hybrid of hierarchy and network that lets people share and pool information. Johnson speculates insightfully (pp. 72-73) that combining 311-like systems to identify problems with Kickstarter-like systems to solve them, plus introducing prize-backed challenges to attract participation in some situations, might go far to improve upon current ways of addressing civic problems in our communities.
Looking ahead from a peer-progressive perspective, Johnson anticipates major shifts in our political and economic systems. As for politics, peer progressives welcome transitioning away from the old Legrand-Star model of the state and its penchant for central planning; for they are ambivalent about hierarchical institutions. This includes representative democracies that are supposed to be bottom-up but have become quite centralized and top-heavy, and that let power be concentrated around ever smaller and less diverse groups. Indeed, he says, peer progressives tend to be Madisonian in their concerns that modern-day tyrannical nobles are gaining sway in our public and private sectors (pp. 155-157). Thus Johnson, like others, expresses hopes for the spread of “liquid democracy” and “participatory budgeting” as ways of expanding “the space of civic participation” at local and broader levels (p. 175).
As to future economic change, he draws mainly on the concept of “conscious capitalism” and the prospects it offers for making corporations run more like peer networks than fiefdoms:
- “Conscious capitalism is what happens when peer-progressive values are applied to corporate structures.” (p. 182)
- “The beauty of the peer-progressive approach to corporate organization is that it addresses many of the prevailing critiques of modern capitalism.” (p. 183)
What he likes is that conscious capitalism is about stakeholders more than shareholders, seeks out diverse sources of information, and encourages wide distribution of profits (pp. 178-180). He also commends that all the above is embodied in a new generation of employee-owned businesses, some of which operate as non-profit cooperatives (p. 187). Nonetheless, his optimism is tempered by wondering whether capitalism will really be transformed by learning to apply the lessons of peer networks to the social architecture of corporations (p. 195).
Johnson also discusses applying peer-progressivism to schools and their incentive structures. He thinks both teachers unions and libertarians — i.e., the agents of hierarchy and market methods — have faulty solutions in mind. Outcomes would be better if schools could be run like peer networks (pp. 191-190).
Thus, his array of examples shows that peer networks are taking hold all over the map, in all sectors of society: government, business, civil society. And that is principally what we wants to show. Moreover, by now, perhaps a year since he finished the book, lots of new examples could be added that seem eminently peer-progressive. For example, I’d suggest adding Code for America (CFA), the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), and NGOs promoting “networked humanitarianism” (such as iRevolution and ReliefWeb). Meanwhile at his blog, Johnson is keen about pro-peer-network research at NYU’s Governance Lab (GovLab). And just today, thanks to the PBS Newshour, I learned that Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s The Metropolitan Revolution (2013) reports on how numerous coalitional networks of city and metropolitan leaders from diverse sectors — and they sure sound like peer networks, including conservatives as well as progressives — are stepping up in innovative ways to fix political, economic. and other problems while federal and state governments pull back.
All this parallels TIMN, which holds that established activities and enterprises in all sectors will be modified by the rise of a new form, currently meaning the network (+N) form. But from a TIMN perspective, more is going on than across-the-board modifications and transformations in existing sectors. TIMN also implies the creation of a brand new sector.
But before turning to that, I’d rather focus first, and briefly, on a couple of points that extend from the preceding discussion about wide-ranging changes:
- People will treat networks — not just governments or markets — as solutions.
- New political philosophies and ideologies will emerge.
My findings about TIMN and Johnson’s findings about peer progressivism are largely in agreement on those two points.
Networks as solutions
TIMN has long maintained that, beyond today’s common claims that government or market is the solution, we are entering a new era in which it will be said that the network is the solution (e.g., here and here). Aging contentions that turning to “the government” or “the market” is the way to address particular public-policy issues will eventually give way to innovative ideas that “the network” is the optimal solution.
Johnson shows that peer progressivism says much the same — indeed, it’s one of his key themes:
- "Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that govern the design of the net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems — the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. (p. 19)
- “To be a peer progressive, then, is to believe that the key to continued progress lies in building peer networks in as many regions of modern life as possible: in education, healthcare, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies. When a need arises in society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.” (p. 50)
This prospect amounts to a significant overlap with TIMN. I’ve tried to indicate elsewhere that it may develop in the context of the rise of “cyberocracy” and a “nexus state” in the future, but I’ll leave discussing that for another day, possibly in Part 3.
Toward new political ideologies and philosophies
According to TIMN (initially, 1996, pp. 30-33), as the network (+N) form takes hold, new political ideologies and philosophies will take shape around it. They will be network-oriented rather than tribe-, state-, or market-oriented, and they will arise across the political spectrum: Right, Left, and Center.
Johnson’s write-up shows agreement with this prospect, at least for the Center and Left parts of the spectrum — that’s what peer progressivism means. Here are a few apropos quotes:
- “The fact that the peer network does not fit easily into traditional political categories of the Left and Right should not be mistaken for some kind of squishy, “third way” centrism. It is not the moderates attempt to use Big Government and Big Labor to counterbalance the excesses of Big Corporations. Living strictly by peer-progressive values means rethinking the fundamental structures of some of the most revered institutions of modern life; it means going back to the drawing board to think about how private companies and democracies are structured. It is … not a matter of finding a middle ground between Left and Right, but rather finding a way forward. This is why it is so important that these principles not be confused with simple internet utopianism. (p. 51)
In the following passage he tries to specify the kind of political agenda that peer progressives are disposed to have:
- “But think about the specific values that we have seen associated with the peer-progressive worldview. Peer progressives are wary of excessive top-down government control in bureaucracy; they want more civic participation and accountability in public-sector issues that affect their communities. They want more choice and experimentation in public schools; they think, on the whole, that the teachers unions have been a hindrance to educational innovation. They think markets can be a great force for innovation and rising standards of living, but they also think corporations are far too powerful and top-heavy in their social architecture. They believe the rising wealth and income gaps need to be restored to levels closer to those of the 1950s. They believe that the campaign financing system is poisoning democracy, but want to retain an individual’s right to support candidates directly. They want lower prices for prescription drugs without threatening the innovation engine of the pharmaceutical industry. They are socially libertarian, and consider diversity to be a key cultural value. They believe the decentralized, peer-to-peer architecture of the Internet has been a force for good, and that governments (or corporations) shouldn't mess with it.” (pp. 205-206)
Johnson says that this set of values and positions may look like a mishmash, drawn partly from one political party and partly the other.
Yet there is a coherent logic behind them:
- “[T]hrough the lens of peer progressivism, they all come into focus, because the values flow directly from a core set of beliefs about the power and effectiveness of peer networks, in both the private and public sectors. The number of individuals and groups that are actively building new peer-progressive organizations is still small, but the values associated with the movement are shared much more widely throughout the population.” (p. 206)
In rather odd few paragraphs, Johnson mentions Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, and unspecified persons in the Obama administration, as people who have done much to foster peer-network experimentation in political circles (p. 207). I understand his point — it’s a good one — but I wish he’d said more, and identified more than just those mentions.
In any case, by pointing out that networks are increasingly seen as solutions and that new political philosophies and ideologies will take shape around the network form, he goes a long way to proposing that peer progressivism is about far more than reformist modifications all across the board — it means that something distinctly radically new is dawning.
If I ever get back to doing Part 3 of my unfinished series of posts on “TIMN: some implications for thinking about political philosophy and ideology” (beginning here), I’ll be able to say a lot more now than a year ago, thanks to Johnson’s adding peer progressivism to the lexicon for thinking ahead. Indeed, peer progressivism could do a lot for our country in the future. A conservative variety too, if it would just show up (and I’d suppose it should have a name other than peer conservatism). Possible alternatives — e.g., “network libertarianism” — would not be nearly as constructive from a TIMN perspective, as I’ll discuss in Part 4 of this series on Future Perfect.
Over the past 10 to 20 years there have been lots of comparisons of America to the fall of Rome. But TIMN points to a huge crucial difference between the two cases. Yes, they both involve the decay of hierarchical institutions. And both also involve a resurgence of tribalism, domestically and around the periphery. But only one of the two cases — America — appears to be declining in an era when a new form of organization is emerging: the +N form. And that can make a decisive difference, meaning America can renew itself whereas Rome could not. From a TIMN perspective, I'd like to think that is part of the promise of peer networks and peer progressivism." (http://twotheories.blogspot.com/2013/06/in-favor-of-peer-progressives-how-where_25.html_
Toward a new +N sector
Strong as his book is, Johnson misses some matters that would help bolster his case. While he keys off Yochai Benkler’s work on peer production, Johnson does not seem to know about the work of the P2P Foundation and the writings of Michel Bauwens, not to mention other P2P proponents. Johnson also neglects John Keane’s writings about “monitory democracy,” not to mention other writings that emphasize civil society. Indeed, Johnson seems to draw on and associate with a rather select set of currently prominent thinkers. Nothing wrong with that — but it may help explain why he has not cast his net far out toward the edges of recent thinking about peer-to-peer dynamics and their implications.
Yet it’s not just a few other edgy thinkers that Johnson misses. From a TIMN perspective, the analysis of peer networks and peer progressivism would benefit from anticipating prospects for (a) the emergence of a new +N sector, and (b) future evolution from a triform (T+I+M) into a quadriform (T+I+M+N) society. I discuss both prospects — and their lapses in Future Perfect — in the ensuing sections, spread over Parts 3 and 4.
Johnson correctly identifies myriad places where peer networks are taking hold, having effects. But he does so without trying to discriminate whether government, business, or civil society is being affected the most. While it appears that everything is affected, Future Perfect focuses on business and government more than civil society — and if anything, the book emphasizes economics the most. In these tendencies, he has lots of company; many analysts are doing much the same these days. But even though it’s a common tendency in today’s world, TIMN leads me to doubt it’s the most advisable (as discussed here).
TIMN is much more determined to show that, even though the rise of a new form may affect all sectors, some sectors may be more affected than others, as may their relative power and influence. More than that, TIMN implies that the growth of a new form leads to the creation of a new sector around that form. As I’ve written before (e.g., here and here, sometimes using realm instead of sector), that’s what happened with the T, +I, and +M transitions; and TIMN proposes that it’ll happen again with spread of the +N form. If I read Johnson correctly, he has not detected that prospect — he stresses across-the-board effects, almost indiscriminately, and does so mostly in terms of the existing public and private sectors.
My observations and hypotheses about the creation of a new sector are scattered, and I’m not going to do much reiteration here. But as a reminder, a few key points seem pertinent: Since at least the 1990s a lot of theorists have remarked about the prospects for a new sector, and linked them (and it) to the spread of network forms of organization, strategy, and technology, especially among NGOs representing civil society. Peter Drucker named it the social sector — I still like that name — but others, each meaning something a bit different, have called it the third sector, citizen sector, civic sector, social-benefit sector, or commons sector. Whichever, it is likely to consist mostly of small agile non-profit organizations that pertain to civil society more than government or business, and that operate in networks with each other, as well as with traditional public- and private-sector actors. Indeed, one of the most interesting points made about this potential new (+N) sector is that it will be distinct from the established public (+I) and private (+M) sectors.
Against his background, I limit my focus here to just a few matters that peer progressivism is bound to have to take positions on in the future, according to TIMN: One is the role of civil society. The others are speculative possibilities: monitory democracy, and a commons sector.
Importance of civil society. Oddly, Future Perfect does not offer a single paragraph about civil society — a search via Amazon yields nary a mention — whereas there are pages and pages about government and business. Isn’t this a significant inexplicable shortcoming? An analytical imbalance?
In contrast, a new forward-looking conservative analysis by James Bennett and Michael Lotus, America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century — Why America's Greatest Days Are Yet to Come (2013), recognizes that:
- “[A] revival of civil society appears to be in store. New technology, which allows people to connect in new ways, is likely to lead to a revival of civil society in new forms. We expect this process to continue and to evolve rapidly. What we now refer to as “social media” are only early and primitive versions of the civil society-enabling technology we will be seeing in the years ahead. Nonetheless it is too early to say exactly how, and how much, new technology will revive and strengthen civil society.” (p. 41; h/t The Scholar's Stage blog)
Future Perfect might easily have said something similar — and been the better for it, in terms of foreseeing what may turn out to be important to peer progressives. As an aside, I notice that the authors of America 3.0 do not link their point to Edmund Burke’s great concept about the value of “little platoons” in civil society. That could easily be fashioned into a peer-oriented concept in favor of 3.0 conservatism — one that’d be attractive to eclectic peer progressives as well.
Possibility of monitory democracy. Future Perfect expresses hopes for “liquid democracy” — an information-age way to improve representation from inside the political system. But John Keane’s concept of “monitory democracy” —a novel way for civil-society actors to affect democracy from outside the political system — looks more apropos from a TIMN perspective, and it’s not mentioned.
Monitory democracy is entirely consistent with Johnson’s points about peer networks and peer progressivism. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, Keane grounds his concept on increases in monitoring roles played by NGOs and other actors representing civil society. As he states in his book The Life and Death of Democracy (2009):
- “[T]he years since 1945 have seen the invention of about a hundred different types of power-monitoring devices that never before existed within the world of democracy. These watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions are changing both the political geography and the political dynamics of many democracies, which no longer bear much resemblance to textbook models of representative democracy, which supposed that citizens’ needs are best championed through elected parliamentary representatives chosen by political parties. From the perspective of this book, the emerging historical form of ‘monitory’ democracy is a ‘post-Westminster’ form of democracy in which power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments. These extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions include — to mention at random just a few — public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts’ reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, ‘blogging’ and other novel forms of media scrutiny.” (p. 14 here)
Keane makes clear that democracy’s proponents would be well-advised to start understanding and fostering monitory democracy. From a TIMN standpoint, I like Keane’s emphasis on civil society, for TIMN regards civil society as a growing source of monitory power vis à vis state and market actors. Also commendable is Keane’s point that monitory democracy brings new kinds of checks and balances; for TIMN is very much about each form being used in proper ways vis à vis the other forms — ways that would keep the forms and their realms basically separated, limited, balanced, and mutually regulated. Monitory democracy fits well with that.
Even so, Keane’s concept does not imply a distinct monitory sector, for a lot of monitoring will be done by actors in all sectors. Yet, he indicates that the prospects for monitory democracy may depend on people having “equal access to ‘the commons’” — a point germane to the next sub-section of this post. That too is far from his explicitly forecasting a new sector, much less calling for a commons sector. But developing what’s been called a “sensor commons” around peer networks of civil-society NGOs might well be in accordance with monitory democracy and peer progressivism, not to mention TIMN.
Monitoring will surely become a key function of a new +N sector. If Keane’s theorizing about monitory democracy is right (and if my theorizing about TIMN is too), then we are looking at a major area for the growth of peer networks and peer progressivism vis à vis civil society in the future.
Possibility of a commons sector. Nor does Future Perfect contain any reference to the idea of the commons. Elsewhere, it’s making a quiet but noticeable return, especially in regard to what are called the information commons and digital commons. And it’s doing so especially among progressives on the Left who look forward to developing a commons sector. They want it to be separate from the established public and private sectors, to grow to outweigh those sectors on commons-related issues, and to be based on P2P networks and associated principles about shared governance and stewardship.
As Jonathan Rowe once explained,
- “It is significant, then, that an old term is reappearing to describe what is being threatened. It is "the commons," the realm of life that is distinct from both the market and the state and is the shared heritage of us all. Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and environmental activist, writes about the commons of water and seeds. Lawrence Lessig, an author and lawyer, describes the innovation commons of the Internet and the public domain of knowledge. Others are talking about the atmospheric commons, the commons of public squares, and the commons of quiet. …
- “If advocates of the commons in its many forms were to embrace the concept as a defining theme, the result could be a new and potent political force.” (source)
While I’m not sure what to make of this unfolding prospect, I’ve learned enough (e.g., here and here) to see that it fits well not only with TIMN but also with what Future Perfect reports about peer progressivism. The book should have at least mentioned it. If it continues to hold promise and gain ground, peer networks and peer progressives seem likely engines.
Perhaps a reason it’s overlooked is Johnson’s affinity for libertarianism. Traditional libertarians are too dedicated to private property and ownership to favor the return of the commons. But Johnson is well aware of this, as noted in Part 1, and he observes that peer progressives are much more interested in sharing. Thus, why he does not pick up on the rising ferment around the concept of the commons is, for me at least, another shortcoming. Perhaps it seems too far to the Left for him. But the concept may well gain adherents across the political spectrum. (I’ve even tried suggesting that commoneers start experimenting with creating citizens chambers of commons. Isn’t that being somewhat peer-progressive?)
In short, Johnson’s book occasionally recognizes effects that bear on civil society, but his book does little with them and their potential implications. I’m not trying to criticize Future Perfect for missing a few examples, but rather for overlooking civil-society activities in a way that, from a TIMN standpoint, is tantamount to a theoretical lapse about matters that may prove crucial to his prognoses." (http://twotheories.blogspot.com/2013/07/in-favor-of-peer-progressives-how-where.html)
"Principles that created the Internet such as decentralization and peer-to-peer networks should be used much more to tackle some of society's most pressing issues, technology writer Steven Johnson argues in his new book.
"Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks," Johnson writes in "Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age."
"Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange."
Trailblazing examples Johnson cites of such systems include 311, New York City's information hotline; Kickstarter, a web site where people seek funds for creative projects; and Wikipedia, which Johnson lauds as "a living book, growing smarter and more comprehensive every day, thanks to the loosely coordinated actions of millions of human beings across the planet."
While Johnson finds similar collaborative parallels in pre-industrial communities like Renaissance trading cities, he traces the modern trend to the 1960s. That's when engineer Paul Baran designed a decentralized, web-like military communications system that would influence the design of ARPANET, the research network that led, in turn, to the Internet.
"Traditionally, networks had involved centralized mainframes that contained far more processing power and storage capacity than the less advanced terminals connected to them," Johnson writes. "ARPANET, on the other hand, was a network of equals, of peers. No single machine had authority over the others."
In networking that decentralizes intellectual power even as it boosts it, Johnson envisions the future. He calls it "peer progressivism" and tries to show how it might reshape debates on many subjects — from capitalism's focus on short-term profits to improving the effectiveness of unionized teachers, he says.
Techies and political wonks are likely to find Johnson's ideas stimulating. It's a brew tapping both libertarian and liberal philosophies: respect for the individual but distrust of laissez-faire capitalism; support of government's role in cultivating progress but distrust of centralized planning.
Such disparate iconoclasts as liberal Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and conservative Rep. Ron Paul of Texas influence this "new political philosophy," Johnson claims.
Thus, for example, Johnson thinks patent enforcement stifles innovation. So he favors government-sponsored prizes for innovation, rather than patented property rights.
"By creating an outlandish award for a successful product," Johnson says of legislation Sanders introduced in 2011 to encourage pharmaceutical breakthroughs, "Sanders seeks to increase the network of organizations attacking the problem. And by mandating that the innovations not be shackled to the artificial monopolies of patents, these bills increase the network of people who can enhance and refine those innovations."
Businesses with "flatter" hierarchy focused on pleasing employees and customers as well as shareholders offer a more successful and creative alternative to centralized corporate structures, Johnson writes.
At Whole Foods, for example, no one is allowed to earn more than 19 times the salary of the average worker, and bonus recipients can distribute some of their rewards to others.
"The best way to maximize long-term profits is to create value for the entire interdependent business system," Johnson quotes Whole Foods CEO John Mackey as saying."
(bear in mind, Steven Johnson disputes EM's interpretation of his book ( )
In his "talk about political philosophy, Johnson makes no effort to ask even basic philosophical questions.
What if some limits to democratic participation in the pre-Wikipedia era were not just a consequence of high communication costs but stemmed from a deliberate effort to root out populism, prevent cooptation, or protect expert decision making? In other words, if some public institutions eschewed wider participation for reasons that have nothing to do with the ease of connectivity, isn’t the Internet a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist?
To understand why Johnson never ponders this obvious question, it might help to trace where Johnson locates—spatially—all his political battles. His preferred level of scalar analysis is that of the city; he says very little about the nation-state or the international system. His favorite examples of “peer progressivism”—New York’s 311 hotline, where anyone seeking information about some city issue is greeted by a live operator and re-directed to the appropriate resource, and the SeeClickFix initiative, which allows anyone to use the Internet to report a non-emergency neighborhood problem—all revolve around navigating or fixing the decaying urban infrastructure.
Better systems for aggregating and dispensing knowledge can certainly help to solve many problems, but those are problems of a very peculiar nature. Can Washington’s reluctance to intervene in Syria—to take just an extreme example—be blamed on a deficit of knowledge? Or does it stem, rather, from a deficit of will, or of principle? Would extending the participatory logic of Kickstarter to the work of the National Endowment for Democracy or to the State Department’s Policy Planning staff lead to better policy on democracy promotion? Or will it result in more populist calls to search for Joseph Kony? 4 Can’t the lowering of barriers to participation also paralyze the system, as some would argue is the case with the proliferation of ballot initiatives in California?
Many of our political institutions regularly confront problems that are not the result of knowledge deficiencies. Johnson’s fixation on the city, however, makes him erroneously conclude that most problems do stem from knowledge gaps that can be easily, quickly, and cheaply filled with better data. He never mentions that some problems (even at the city level) can only be mitigated—never solved—through bargaining, because those problems emerge from competing interests, not knowledge gaps. Johnson’s is a post-ideological world, where history has ended and politics has been reduced to fixing potholes and reviewing patent applications. Think Palo Alto, not East Palo Alto. In this world, the only evil to be reckoned with comes from lazy bureaucrats who refuse to publish data in easily accessible computer formats.
Projects such as 311 and SeeClickFix face very little opposition from anyone. After all, who would oppose a faster, more effective way to report potholes? But participatory budgeting—another one of Johnson’s favorite examples of “peer progressivism”—is not like that at all. Participatory budgeting is a reform effort that started in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and has now faddishly spread around the globe; its main tenet is that local communities should have a say in how their budgets are spent. Participatory budgeting is far more contentious than 311, as it seeks to take power from one group—elected and unelected city officials, but also city planners and even real estate developers who have been cultivating connections to corrupt officials—and shift it to a previously marginalized group: citizens.
In Johnson’s world, such transfers of power happen smoothly. It’s not hard to see why: his Internet-centric theory of politics is shallow. Wikipedia, remember, is a site that anyone can edit! As a result, Johnson cannot account for the background power conditions and inequalities that structure the environment into which his bright reform ideas are introduced. 5 Once those background conditions are factored in, it becomes far less obvious that increasing decentralization and participation is always desirable. Even Wikipedia tells us a more complex story about empowerment: yes, anyone can edit it, but not anyone can see their edits preserved for posterity. The latter depends, to a large extent, on the politics and the power struggles inside Wikipedia.
Johnson’s sophomoric treatment of power turns his argument into a fairy tale. Take participatory budgeting. Scholars have identified three challenges—the problems of implementation, inequality, and cooptation—that come to plague such reforms. The first arises quite naturally, given that both government and even non-government players are reluctant to relinquish power over budgets to citizens. The second is also easy to grasp: the weakest members of society are often reluctant to participate in such new schemes, as they have no time to attend meetings and lack the self-confidence to voice their opinions. And finally, participatory budgeting is often used to tame—or coopt—otherwise unruly civil society groups. By giving them a small budget to play with and integrating them into existing state structures, the government can neutralize powerful non-state players.
All three problems can be overcome, as the weaker groups learn how to organize, to make alliances, and to refuse the tight embrace of the state. In Porto Alegre, where the practice originated, all three have indeed been overcome. But Johnson never says how this was accomplished: participatory budgeting was the flagship program of the Workers’ Party, which governed the Porto Alegre municipality between 1989 and 2004.6 The idea of wider community participation didn’t just reflect the party’s leftist ideals; it was also a way to chip away at some of the local clientelism that for decades had impeded political reform in Brazil.
A view of Porto Alegro, Brazil, where budgets are set by the citizens. (Flickr/Alexandre Pereira) The Porto Alegre experiment succeeded because there was a centralized effort to make it work. Centralization was the means through which the end of decentralization was achieved. Without well-organized, centralized, and hierarchical structures to push back against entrenched interests, attempts to make politics more participatory might stall, and further disempower the weak, and coopt members of the opposition into weak and toothless political settings. This was the case before the Internet, and, most likely, it will be the case long after.
But Johnson is completely blind to the virtues of centralization. In discussing 311, he lauds the fact that tipsters calling the hotline help to create a better macro-level view of city problems. But this is a trivial insight compared with the main reason why 311 works: Mayor Bloomberg’s decision to centralize—not decentralize—previous models of reporting tips. Here is how Accenture, the firm that assisted New York in its switch to the 311 system, describes the origins of that project: “[Before 311], customers looking for government assistance were confronted with more than 4,000 entries on 14 pages of the NYC telephone book, and more than 40 resource-intensive call centers were required to direct inquiries to the right city offices. The Mayor’s vision was that of a high-performance, centralized, all-purpose call facility, accessible through the simple-to-remember 3-1-1 phone number.”
Nor does Johnson say whether there are limits to decentralization, or how we can understand what needs to be kept centralized, if only temporarily. Instead, he opts to identify the spirit of the Internet in the workings of modern politics. Thus, writing of the Occupy Wall Street movement, he notes that “as the Internet grew to become the dominant communications medium of our age, social movements would increasingly look like the Internet, even when they were chanting slogans in the middle of a city park.” This, for Johnson, is invariably a good thing: the more decentralized and horizontal it is, the more likely a social movement is to succeed.
Whether Occupy Wall Street got its shape thanks to the Internet or to the ideas of horizontalism — first tested in Argentina around 2001 and promoted by Marina Sitrin, a prominent activist, in the decade that followed — is something to be debated, and Johnson makes no effort to engage with such alternative explanations. (The first rule of Internet-centrism is that if something can be explained according to the Internet, it must be explained according to the Internet.) But even assuming that Johnson is right and the idea of the Internet does indeed inform how social movements form and operate these days, it is not immediately obvious why this is a model worth pursuing. Not everyone believes that Occupy Wall Street was a runaway success.
Besides, what would this model look like in practice? For Johnson, it means a switch from hierarchies to networks, from centralization to decentralization, from leaders to horizontal assemblages. There are two possible responses to such claims. One is to assume that such remodeling rests on a theoretical fantasy about how social movements work in practice. Another is to concede that, whereas some such decentralization might be feasible, absolutely nothing guarantees that, as far as efficacy is concerned, decentralization beats centralization.
The first view—that social movements will never be able to transcend hierarchies and replace them with horizontal networks—was cogently expressed by Jo Freeman in 1972 in her landmark essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112189/social-media-doesnt-always-help-social-movements)
A critique of internet-centrism
"Challenging power requires a strategy that in many circumstances might favor centralization. To reject the latter on philosophical grounds rather than strategic grounds—because it is anti-Internet or anti-Wikipedia—borders on the suicidal.
This antipathy to hierarchies and leaders is part of a broader Internet-centrist backlash against institutions; they are believed to be incompatible with the logic of the Internet. This anti-institutional bias is most visible in Johnson’s discussion of American politics. He sincerely believes that one way to improve it is to get rid of the hassle that comes with political parties, leaders, and other mediating institutions, and then allow citizens to cast votes directly on issues they care about or to delegate those votes to more knowledgeable friends—a delegation mechanism that Johnson calls “liquid democracy.” In 2005, in an essay that previewed many of the themes that he tackles in Future Perfect, Johnson turned to one of his favorite subjects—sociobiology—to argue that, if only we had the right tools, leaders would not be needed altogether:
Just as the ants find their way to new food sources and switch tasks with impressive flexibiliy, our community tools should help us locate and improve troubled schools, up-and-coming playground, areas lacking crucial services, areas with an abundance of services, blocks that feel safe at night and blocks that don't— all the subtle patterns of community life now made public in a new form. That kind of politics— the kind built from the ground up, without leaders—is truly within our grasp right now, if we can just build the right tools. In Future Perfect, Johnson pushes this rhetoric even further, writing that “the parties are institutions stuck in older ways of organizing the world”; they have forced the electorate “to distort the square peg of its true political worldview to fit the round holes of the two parties.” This is an odd explanation of the longevity of the party system. Many democracies outside the United States have more than two mainstream parties; the binary “round holes” that Johnson complains about are not a feature of some existential divide between the old and new forms of organizing and certainly not the consequences of inadequate communications infrastructure.
Johnson believes that the old party system is bad simply because it is Internet-incompatible. He never pauses to examine what positive role parties—and partisanship more broadly—have played in American politics. Nancy Rosenblum and Sean Wilentz have recently advanced sophisticated historical arguments in defense of partisanship, but Johnson does not much care about the fine print; he just finds political parties suffocating compared, well, with Wikipedia.
Where exactly would Johnson’s “liquid democracy” lead us? In a footnote, he notes that “the German Pirate Party has implemented ‘liquid democracy’ techniques with some success in recent years.” “Some success” is a gross overstatement, as their unlikely success in Germany appears to have been rather short-lived. Yet in many ways, the Pirates have self-consciously adopted all the imagery and rhetoric of the Internet; they are the living embodiment of Internet-centrism. Obsessed with process—decentralized and horizontal, of course—they offer little by way of goals and policy positions. Worse, they think that such vacuousness is actually an asset; as the party’s spokesperson declared in 2011, “What we’re offering is not a program, but an operating system.”
A party with no strong stance on issues beyond copyright, censorship, and privacy, the Pirates remain a mystery to most German voters, who have lost their early enthusiasm for the cool young kids. Once polling in the double digits, the Pirates today are unsure of even passing the 5 percent threshold needed to get into the Bundestag in the upcoming elections. The lack of leadership and basic discipline within the party—some of its members show up at legislative sessions in shorts—has turned them into a national joke.
ABANDON SHIP The Pirate Party of Western Germany finds itself losing political power. (Getty/Patrik Stollarz) The Pirates’ rhetorical embrace of “liquid democracy,” where everyone can participate and delegate votes to each other, has not worked in practice; even almighty software cannot excite ordinary citizens about the humdrum and arcane issues of which most politics is made. By October 2012, in North Rhine-Westphalia—a region with eighteen million inhabitants—the Pirates used their trademark Liquid Feedback software to gather opinions on only two issues. A poll on one such issue—the controversial ban on circumcision—attracted only twenty votes. As Der Spiegel dryly put it, “It’s a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate.”
Anyone familiar with critiques of direct democracy would not find this surprising.10 The attempt to reform politics needs to start with some basic account of the very limitations of politics itself, and not just salivate over the infinite opportunities of digital technologies. The Pirates took the idea of the Internet seriously—only to discover that the rhythms and rituals of old-school politics do not stem merely from inferior technologies, but rather reflect assumptions about human nature, power, and justice. Relations among humans have many more layers of complexity than those among ants; there are inequalities, asymmetries, and grievances to be found at all layers—and what might seem like inefficiencies or gaps in participation or transparency might, on second look, prove to be the very democracy-enabling protective tissues that allow liberal societies to function.
This lack of curiosity about how the world works is the most pernicious feature of Internet-centrism. Armed with the Internet, its proponents do not much care about the larger objective of their reform. They prefer to notice only those elements amenable to Internet interventions and discard all others. Johnson never actually states what bothers him about the NEA, and why it needs to become more like Kickstarter; for him, making it Internet-compatible is always right. He never asks what it is that the NEA actually does, how it sets its agenda, and what it hopes to achieve.
Is the kind of expertise that the NEA relies on additive? Does the cumulative knowledge of ten mediocre wanna-be art critics on Kickstarter equal that of one art wonk who works at the NEA? Will increasing participation in NEA funding open it to manipulation by Koch-funded Tea Party activists, steering funding to socially conservative projects? Do the film-makers who receive the most Facebook likes make the most provocative films? Is provocation something that our art policy should cultivate? These are the questions that anyone concerned with reforming the NEA cannot avoid asking. But Johnson is not interested in reforming the NEA—he is interested only in imposing his Internet-centric solutions on everything.
Johnson’s book would not be remarkable if its Internet-centrism—and the severe intellectual limits it has imposed on his narrative—were not so stark. What Future Perfect reveals quite clearly is that we have reached a point where scholars and intellectuals grappling with the Internet face a choice between two mutually exclusive methods of inquiry."
Against Internet Totalizing
One—an outgrowth of Internet-centrism—is driven by the impulse to totalize and generalize; the other by the impulse to disaggregate and particularize. One has space for the Internet and little else; the other eschews any talk of “the Internet”—it deliberately puts it in scare quotes throughout—and engages with platforms and technologies on their own terms, as if they share no common logic.11 Instead of assuming that these technologies emerge from “the Internet,” this second approach assumes that it is “the Internet”—as an idea, if not as a technical network—that emerges out of those technologies.
The totalizing approach tries to collect disparate and often incommensurate insights and fit them into some grand narrative about the unfolding of the Internet’s spirit. The particularizing approach refuses any kind of spiritual talk; instead, it aims to document the multiplicity of logics and paradoxes of which “the Internet” is actually composed. This latter approach knows that networks are not inherently liberating; depending on how nodes are connected to each other, networks can be far more tyrannical, opaque, and anti-democratic than hierarchies.
The totalizing approach assumes that a site such as Kickstarter is just a straightforward mediator through which the voice of the people can be expressed; the particularizing seeks to peer inside Kickstarter’s algorithms and understand how they are manipulated. The former approach assumes that, on the Internet, “things go viral”; the latter investigates how such “virality” is produced, how popularity is created on each and every platform, and whose interests—those of advertisers, platform owners, or users—are boosted in the process.
The advantage of the particularizing approach over the totalizing one is that it can explain how an idea like “the Internet” emerges in public discourse, how it mutates with time, and what ideological purposes it might be serving at any particular moment. (Whenever you hear phrases like “This won’t work on the Internet” or “This will break the Internet,” it’s a good sign that someone is deploying “the Internet” to promote their political agenda.)12
The totalizers would happily follow Johnson in seeking answers to questions such as “So what does the Internet want?”—as if the Internet were a living thing with its own agenda and its own rights. Cue a recent Al Jazeera column: “The internet is not territory to be conquered, but life to be preserved and allowed to evolve freely. ... From understanding the internet as a life form that is in part human, it follows that the internet itself has rights.”13 That is the kind of crazy talk to be avoided. The particularizers would not invoke “the Internet” to embark on a quixotic attempt to re-make democratic politics; but the totalizers, in their quasi-religious belief, would do so gladly." (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112189/social-media-doesnt-always-help-social-movements)