FUTURE PERFECT: The Case For Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson

The first book I read by Johnson (“Everything Bad for You is Good”) turned my head 180 degrees about everything from video games to TV.  The next book I read by him (“Where Good Ideas Come From”) was the best book I had read in the preceding three years.  So I was understandably excited about his latest effort.  I was not disappointed.

“Future Perfect” lays out in 200 crisp pages a compelling argument that our increasingly distributed society will result in better decisions across the economic and political horizon. He sets out illuminating examples over the course of the last couple centuries that we are moving toward a point that requires networks for optimum problem solving.

Riverhead / Penguin Books

Johnson starts with some intriguing statistics to start the scales falling from skeptical eyes, in much the same way that the Freakonomics authors or Malcolm Gladwell wields arcane facts.

Johnson points out that many Americans are convinced that half of all marriages end in divorce, although that hasn’t been the case since the early 80s when indeed divorces peaked at over 50%. Since then, divorce has declined by almost a third.  Likewise, although the world’s population has doubled in the last 50 years, the percentage living in poverty has declined by 50% over that period. Nonetheless, wealth inequality has returned to levels not seen since the Roaring 20s; unemployment and household debt has also increased. Johnson points out that we underestimate the amount of steady progress that continues around us and we misunderstand where that progress comes from.

Johnson then analyzes prior studies comparing the semi-anarchic peasant societies of Malaysia and Vietnam to the sterile planned cities like Brasilia, and finds the former better by myriad measures.

Against this foundation, Johnson build his argument that we are moving from a centralized to a decentralized and finally to a distributed society. Inevitably the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek comes under scrutiny. Hayek’s theory propounds the beauty of decentralization when it comes to economic planning and indeed such planning has proven to be ultimately fruitless and/or ineffective. Although Hayek has become a patron saint of the libertarian Right, he has also been embraced by those who were fierce opponents of master planners such as Robert Moses.

Johnson points out the frequently unstated truism that even the political left works within the assumption that the private sector drives change and progress, whereas the public sector at best creates safety nets.

Johnson points out that the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River was not a function of one pilot hero, nor was it a miracle. Rather it was the result of countless individuals contributing to a jet that could fly safely with one engine and that had provided the pilot crucial fly-by-wire technology so that he was truly neither flying nor landing alone.

By analyzing the rubric of centralized vs decentralized vs distributed networks, Johnson compares the French railway system, the growth of the distributed internet protocol now ubiquitous vs the proprietary yet failed standards proffered by AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, Microsoft, Apple and others. Yet Johnson also points out that the decidedly non-digital trading towns of the early Renaissance (Venice, Genoa) prospered due to peer networks. That rubric sets the framework for his conclusion proposing a new political philosophy different from the state centralized solutions of the old left and the libertarian market religion of the right.

This movement, the central tenet of his book, he dubs ‘peer progressives.’ To be a peer progressive is to believe in the power of markets, and the affirmation that the most effective decisions are those not made from the top down. Johnson reiterates that such peer progressivism should not be confused with simple internet utopianism. He posits that peer progressivism is already transforming everything from local governments to classrooms, from protest movements to health care. Kickstarter, Wikipedia, 311 and various other examples are further contemporary proof of this distributed model.

Essentially, argues Johnson, when you give people more control over information and the decision-making process, the social health of the community improves markedly.

Without saying it, because the book was written before the recent quote, there is certainly evidence that Johnson supports the premise underneath Obama’s mis-stated quotation about ‘you didn’t build it.’

If you like the way Malcolm Gladwell, Freakonomics, The Wisdom of Crowds, Abundance and the like turn your head around, you should find time for Johnson’s latest book.



Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.