Monday, November 5, 2012

Future Perfect: a very short review

About a decade ago, I read a fairly clever book by Steven Johnson: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. The book explored the idea that complex behaviors can arise out of the apparently disconnected and unrelated behaviors of a group of smaller independent objects. The book was rigorous enough to be informative but also descriptive enough to be entertaining.

Ten years later, Johnson's latest book is Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

Future Perfect attempts to reveal ways that we can improve our political institutions and our public organizations, using the techniques that have arisen from the highly-connected Internet and the so-called "social media" approaches.

Johnson's book bounces all over the place, making some points very well, while in other cases demonstrating what I found to be at best tenuous support for his proposed ideas.

In a strong early chapter, Johnson discusses how the Internet, through tools such as Kickstarter, could literally revolutionalize the way that artists get funded and find their audience:

Art that probes the boundaries of accepted ideas or taste rarely attracts enough of an audience to sustain itself financially. We have the phrase "starving artist" for a reason. And yet society as a whole benefits greatly from the network edges of experimental writing and music and theater and seventy-one-minute music videos. Subcultures expand the possibility space of our experience and our understanding; yesterday's underground is tomorrow's mainstream.

Johnson then explains why the Kickstarter approach is so revolutionary:

The donors decide which projects deserve support. There are no experts, no leaders, no bureaucrats -- only peers. New creative ideas don't need to win over an elite group of powerful individuals huddled in a conference room, and they don't need to win over a mass audience. All they need is an informal cluster of supporters, each contributing a relatively small amount of money.

Although Johnson didn't make this connection, I was strongly reminded, while reading this chapter, of micro-investment web sites such as Kiva, which seem very similar both in their approach, and in their potential.

Later in the book I thought Johnson succeeded again, in his discussion about the decline of mass media. Johnson makes a point that I think is often overlooked: Internet-based sources of news and current events often bring a locality of focus, offering something that the mass media was never capable of delivering:

Yet every week in my neighborhood there would be easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house; a new deli opening; a house sale; the baseball team at my kid's school winning a big game. The New York Times can't cover those things in a print paper not because of some journalistic failing on their part, but rather because the economics are all wrong: there are only a few thousand people potentially interested in those news events, in a city of 8 million people.


We've never thought of it as a failing of the newspaper that its metro section didn't report on a deli closing, because it wasn't even conceivable that a big centralized paper could cover an event with such a small radius of interest. But peer networks can. They can find a way around the pothole paradox.

Not all of Johnson's book hits pay dirt: his notions of "liquid democracy" seem full of hand-waving and elision to me, and I think that he confers a decision of success on efforts that seem to me to be still nascent and most likely benefiting greatly from faddishness and the 'cool' factor.

However, he has some nifty ideas, he writes well, and, most importantly, he is quite talented at taking current events and ideas and extrapolating and projecting them just slightly into the future, providing a certainly-possible view of what might be.

Best of all, I think, he is a looker-on-the-bright-side. With all the doom and gloom (much of it well-deserved, I admit), it is refreshing and stimulating to find somebody like Johnson who looks at occurrences such as US Airways Flight 1549, Porto Alegre's participatory budgeting, and Girl Walk // All Day, and concludes that the future, if not as perfect as his title makes it out to be, is at least hopeful and worth fighting for and celebrating.

Looking for a good way to pass a long plain trip, or a rainy weekend afternoon? Give Future Perfect a try, and let me know what you think!

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