I’ve been involved in Silicon Valley for almost 20 years now, and I’ve been interested and involved in politics for even longer, and through it all I’ve struggled to understand and categorize the political thinking of people in the tech world. Many of them are not really left or right but something different and undefined. Undefined, until now.
Steven Johnson’s terrific new book “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age” puts a stake in the ground and does the best job I’ve seen to define that political mentality and even coin a new term for it: “Peer Progressive.”
Like me, Johnson says he spent years trying to make sense of the worldview not only of many of those he knew in the Valley, but also in circles on both coasts and in urban hubs. They appreciated markets for their efficiency and they appreciated the need for an activist government too. Yet they were wary of how markets often led to big, centralized corporations, and how government often ended up with big, bureaucratic solutions as well.
Johnson points out that there is a third way, a fundamentally different way to organize things through peer networks, which are radically decentralized networks of equals. People involved with the Internet watched how the digital revolution forced reorganizations of whole industries and fields around this network model and so it deeply influenced their thinking on how civic sectors and society as a whole ultimately might be reorganized as well.
So that accounts for the “peer” part of the concept. How about the “progressive” part? This does NOT refer to what often is labeled as progressive in conventional politics today. Those classic progressives are actually hanging onto the progressive ideas of past generations (defend unions at all costs, etc.) and often are deeply suspicious of change and pessimistic about the future.
Johnson uses the term “progressive” in a more generic way as in: people who believe in progress and are open to change and often optimistic about the future. He also uses it in a more historical way as in: people who are more aligned with the core values and more concerned with the core constituencies of the progressive tradition as opposed to the conservative tradition in American politics.
We’re in the muddled early stages of defining this new political mindset and of reorganizing society around this peer network model. So much of the book is devoted to early cases of this fundamental reorganization and this new mindset at work. As a former journalist, I particularly liked his chapter on how that field has been transformed along these lines. The conventional wisdom often is that society was better served by old media (which was the big centralized 20th century kind) while Johnson makes a very compelling argument that society is already better served by the new media, the exploded, bottom-up model of blogs and amateur involvement in providing information – and certainly will be in the near future.
Johnson does a decent job of trying to give some shape to how government might work very differently in his chapter on “liquid democracies.” He does the same in the economic realm with his chapter on “conscious capitalism.” But this is a short book and his aim is to just provide a starting point for much more rigorous and thorough thinking to come.
I couldn’t help but view the book through the lens of the Reinventors series that we’re just starting over at Reinventors.net. In our terms, Johnson is describing the early stages of the reinvention of progressivism itself. This long political tradition has gone through several reinventions: around the Civil War period, around the so-called “Progressive Era” of the early 20th century, and again in the 1930s around the Great Depression and WWII. It’s long overdue for the next one, now.
The book also describes one of the core reinventions that inevitably must come to almost all fields and sectors: the redesign of all the hierarchical, bureaucratic systems of the 20th century into the network models of the 21st. The pioneers of that inevitable transformation are the “peer progressives.”
This is why Steven Johnson will be one of our first (if not the first) remarkable reinventor to kick off the roundtable series. His topic will be Reinvent Progressivism. You can find out more about it here.
And I expect we will have many more “peer progressives” in the roundtables, whether they identify that way or not. I hope they do grab onto the label. This term could well be a catalytic agent that pulls together many like-minded people who are toiling away in their own little worlds with little understanding of how they fit in the whole. When enough of them come together they have the potential to shake up the political status quo and help bring about some of the big changes that must come to create a more perfect future.