Welcome Steven Johnson (StevenBerlinJohnson.com) and Host Nicco Mele (Nicco.org)

Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

When I first read Eric S. Raymond’s landmark essay on open-source programming, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, I was delighted. Here was a perfect exposition of my experience with programming and the open-source community. You can write code in a Cathedral model – where Bill Gates is the architect and hires thousands of Micro-Serfs to write code that conforms to his blueprints – or you can write code in a Bazaar model, where your work was part of the community, “a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches… out of which a coherent and stable system could… emerge.” I knew which camp I was in: the Bazaar model as embodied in the open-source community was intellectually exciting and full of innovation, even if it didn’t pay as well.

As I became more involved in politics, the ethos of the open-source movement seemed confusingly in conflict with my experience of the Democratic Party. In their book Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics, Jerome Armstrong (of MyDD) and Markos Moulitsas (of DailyKos fame) described the explosive encounter of the netroots with the Democratic Party establishment. But that isn’t the full story – the power of the netroots and the open-source movement stretches much deeper, well beyond mere party power politics. Something else is at work – something that Steven Johnson has surfaced and named in his excellent and insightful book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.

One of my great frustrations about the digital age is how poor our language is to explain and understand what is happening in our midst. At the outset of Future Perfect, Johnson offers us a new word to describe an emerging political consciousness: peer progressive. It is an apt term, well-coined. Peer progressives believe in the progress of humanity – that we are on a path of continual improvement, and that the exciting technological innovations of the digital age offer new and compelling ways forward. While embracing a progressive worldview, peer progressives believe in the power of peer-to-peer networks, not institutions. They are “wary of centralized control, but they [are] not free-market libertarians…they [are] equally suspicious of big government and big corporations.” (page xxxvi)

In many ways, Future Perfect follows directly from Johnson’s earlier books on the impact of technology on our culture. Here, he describes what it means to be a peer progressive, including provide a historical context that suggests there is a long tradition of the decentralized anti-institutional progressive point of view. He goes on to look at the impact of a peer progressive point of view on our politics, our government, our media, and our corporations. A key framework of the book is the difference between the Legrand Star and the Baran network. The Legrand Star is the French railway plan where all roads lead to Paris, the “star” at the heart of the rail system. Johnson uses “Legrand Star” as vocabulary to describe how the priorities of a large institution can deliver a centralized solution with significant constraints. On the other end, Paul Baran is one of the founders of the digital era. His primary insight about how to harness the power of networks led to packet switching, a technology upon which the entire internet, from email to TCP/IP, is built. A Baran Web has no center, and consequently is enormously flexible in responding to a wide range of challenges. Johnson looks at different examples in the spheres of politics, government, policy, and corporate strategy: is this a Legrand Star solution or a Baran Web solution?

I’m ready to call myself a peer progressive. This grows out of my own experience, of having liberal values about many issues, but not seeing government as the solution to many of our challenges. Part of it is my experience of the open source movement, where complex problems (albeit technical ones) can be solved in an open collaborative way without formal institutions given good leadership and clear process. Johnson has begun the process of integrating a peer progressive point of view into a coherent political agenda that combines liberal social values with a more libertarian attitude about institutions. But remember that institutions includes corporations: an important characteristic of the peer progressive is that “peer progressives genuinely like free markets; they’re more ambivalent about CEOs and multinational corporations.” (p. 29)

I’ll be honest: I have significant reservations about what we might leave behind as we embrace the opportunities of the networked age. (I have written my own book on this subject, which won’t be out for a few months.) Regardless of my own reservations, I am convicted of the moral imperative to peer progressive approaches to our institutions. Johnson notes that “The peer-progressive framework is in its infancy, after all. We don’t yet know its limits.” (p. 208) It is up to us to find those limitations; I suspect we will all be surprised at the resiliency and opportunity that a peer-progressive future might provide. Read this book, our future depends on it.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

81 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Steven Johnson, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age”

BevW December 9th, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Steven, Welcome to the Lake.

Nicco, Welcome back to the Lake, and thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

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Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Bev, Nicco, everyone, great to be here! I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation.

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Thanks to everybody for being here. I’m really excited to be moderating this book salon. And a special thanks to Steven for joining the conversation this afternoon.

dakine01 December 9th, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Good afternoon Steven and welcome to Firedoglake this afternoon. Nicco welcome back to FDL.

Steven, I have not had an opportunity to read your book so forgive me if you address this in there but what happens to things when the technology blows up (or is blown up)?

BevW December 9th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Steven, how has your book been received by the “progressive” community so far?

BevW December 9th, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Nicco will be right with us -

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:07 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 4

One of the things I tried to do in the book is to make it clear that I wasn’t making techno-utopian arguments — utopian arguments, maybe, but not techno. It’s not that the Internet is our salvation — though I think on the whole it will prove to be a force for good in the world — it’s that the Internet (and the open source tradition that Nicco alludes to in his wonderful intro) can be a role model for new forms of organization. That’s the whole idea of the “peer network”, as a opposed to the market or the state. Peer networks can be built out of digital technology, and indeed in some cases they are easier to build, but they can also be built out of low-tech forms as well, as in Brazilian participatory budgeting or the structures of the trading towns of the early Renaissance, etc. (More to say on that as well.)

SanderO December 9th, 2012 at 2:08 pm
In response to dakine01 @ 4

What happens when anything blows up? You have a mess! Is a high tech system more complex and more difficult to restore or trouble shot than a low tech one?

The issue may be of cascading system failure… or are you referring to hardware failures?

SanderO December 9th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Oh yes! the internet changed everything… nodoubtaboutit.

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Steven – I wanted to start with a simple question: why did you write this book? What motivated you?

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:10 pm

I also think part of the point of your book was the notion that peer networks will not replace traditional institutions — they will work alongside / within them.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:10 pm
In response to BevW @ 5

The response has been very positive. I’ve never had a book where so many people wanted to organize events and public conversations about it, which is great.

What’s been striking is that there are strains of the libertarian world that are trying to figure out what to make of it, because it doesn’t sound like their caricature of what progressives are supposed to sound like. That’s been very interesting to watch.

SanderO December 9th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

the www is going to force the intellectual property laws to be reconsidered…it’s changing how we get and convey news… it holds the potential to be a solid backbone for democracy… as the other bricks and mortar institutions fade to dust… literally. The net may be the only way the people can save themselves from fascism.

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:12 pm

To quote from p. 122 of the book, [peer to peer networks] are not utopias. They’re just leaning that way.

SanderO December 9th, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Are there utopias except in the mind?

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:16 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 10

I started thinking about the ideas in this book literally about twelve years ago, right about when I first read Cathedral and the Bazaar (love that you introduced this salon with that reference, Nicco!) I had just finished my book Emergence, which was all about self-organizing, bottom-up networks, in cities, technology, and in nature (ant colonies, for instance.) And I number of smart folks who read the book started asking me about the political implications. What would an emergent politics look like? Anarchism? Libertarianism? And so the idea has long been in the back of my mind, what I called a “slow hunch” in my previous book, Where Good Ideas Come From.

At a certain point, though, I looked around and realized there were just dozens and dozens of inspiring projects and organizations that were working in this new networked mode, and yet their core values didn’t really belong to a unified category. So I decided the time was right to give this movement a little more definition and to try to amplify all the work that had so inspired me…So that’s how I came to write it…

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:17 pm

This book covers from a 10,000 foot view politics, government, journalism, and corporations — is there something you left out of the book? or wish you had included?

hpschd December 9th, 2012 at 2:18 pm


I keep hearing Howard Zinn “Organize , organize, organize”

I don’t know how.

Looking on the net, I see great ideas everywhere. Just discovered Bernard Lietaer today – more interesting economic stuff to digest.

How to focus?

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I thought it might be worth having a discussion about the importance of diversity for the success of peer-to-peer networks. You touch on this in your book; I was reminded of David Weinberger’s “Too Big To Know” where he discussed the academic evidence about the importance of diversity in order to have integrity in peer-to-peer networks. Clearly, diversity is essential for the success of the network. In your book, you make a compelling case that the digital world is actually pretty diverse, and it’s off-line communities that are less diverse. I would say that this a challenge of sorts to the community here at FireDogLake — to think of ways to encourage diversity in our communities, both offline & online.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:26 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 17

In the next day or two, Grist is going to publish a long conversation I did with Wen Stephenson there where we talked about the absence of climate change in the book. Or not quite “absence” — it’s even worse, because there’s a line where I say something like “peer networks aren’t going to be able to solve all our problems, like perhaps climate change.” And Wen got rightly concerned that here was this big new political worldview, and I was implying that it couldn’t tackle maybe the most pressing issue of our time. So I wish I’d worked through that in more detail, though in the Grist conversation we ended up getting to some very interesting ideas about how peer networks could be used to fight global warming, including Jeremy Rifkin’s ideas about “lateral power,” where the power system looks much more like the Internet than the current top-down industrial model.

Education, too, is a very interesting example of an institution that’s both being transformed by new peer network models, while at the same time being an example of the peer network’s long history, in the form of academic peer review. But I’d written quite a bit about the latter in Good Ideas and my earlier book The Invention of Air, so I didn’t feel the need to rehearse all of that history…

Phoenix Woman December 9th, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Familiarity with peer networks is a good way to get people used to the idea of economic democracy.

hpschd December 9th, 2012 at 2:31 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 19

Diversity is important to the resilience of a network. Efficiency is the often achieved at the expense resilience (monocropping).

But increased diversity can lead to much going on and nothing happening.

The internet and social networks are wildly diverse and we tend to find our choirs to preach to and listen to.

Again, how to focus.

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I started thinking about the two biggest policy screwups of the last decade: the war in Iraq / Weapons of mass destruction, and the big banks / subprime lending. What kinds of peer network solutions might apply to foreign policy (especially in areas where intelligence/secrecy reigns) and financial policy (Bill Greider’s “Secrets of the Temple” might be read as a warning against the Legrand Star approach to fiscal policy)? It raises the question from your book that stood out for me in the starkest relief: what are the limitations of peer networks? We can’t know until we have many, many more experiments, but maybe we can make some educated guesses.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:31 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 19

The big point here is that the value of diversity is central to the peer progressives, but it’s central for slightly different reasons than it has been to earlier progressive movements. It’s not diversity in the service of social tolerance or equality (which is indeed a laudable and important goal, to be sure); instead, it’s diversity in the service of better decision-making. When we have a diverse range of perspectives at the table, we tend to make more innovative and adaptive decisions. We’re not just more tolerant as a group; we’re smarter.

I would wager at the Lake that while the members of the community are not terribly diverse in terms of where they would put themselves on the political spectrum, there is more diversity than you might think in terms of geography and professions, and also more diversity in terms of what you read, because the web makes it so much easier to link to arguments that you disagree with than earlier forms of media.

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:33 pm
In response to hpschd @ 22

Good point @hpschd – I think this points to the role of leadership in peer networks. Just because peer networks aren’t hierarchal, that doesn’t mean they are without leadership. I wonder what Steven thinks about this — the role of leadership in the peer-to-peer network.

Phoenix Woman December 9th, 2012 at 2:34 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 19

In your book, you make a compelling case that the digital world is actually pretty diverse, and it’s off-line communities that are less diverse.

Now that’s interesting. How would you justify that statement? (I am inclined to agree with you, just wondering how you arrived at that conclusion.)

I’d also like, if you feel up to it, if you’d consider addressing the question of trolling and of Energy Creatures, which are endemic to the online world.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:36 pm
In response to hpschd @ 22

Good points about the perils of too much open-ness and diversity. Focus is absolutely important. That’s why I tried to focus (ahem) the book on examples of peer networks that actually Got Things Done, and weren’t just endless brainstorms. Wikipedia is amazingly open as a platform, but somehow it works and gets both more comprehensive and more accurate over time; Kickstarter has become bigger than the NEA in supporting creative work in just a few years. These are all systems that take a giant, diverse audience with varied interests, and gets them focused on the problems or issues they care about, or have some expertise with. There’s lots to learn from there…

eCAHNomics December 9th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

A few intro comments, with Qs.

1. How can we tell whether the crowd is dominated by wholly owned subsidiary of PTB (Powers That Be). As near as I can tell, netroots is just such a trick on gullible lefties. Obamabots. Only it took me awhile to figure it out. How can we recognize them sooner and exclude them from our productive activities?

2. What about those of us, like me, who have reached the Luddite stage of life. For example, twitter seems like eTourettes. I can’t read that stuff, gives me a serious out-of-body experience.

I have been pleased to cross fertilize ideas who people who are not confined to my geography, but downside has become apparent. Some trolls are obvious, others are more subtle.

3. Finally, what about NSA and other govt spy-ops who are collecting every keystroke & will use it against us if they decide we are on the wrong side of a drone attack, cum video game?

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:36 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 26

Before I answer, what are Energy Creatures? They sound very intriguing…

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

By the way, your mention of Jeremy Rifkin, coupled with some googling, is leading to a head-slapping moment – how did I miss this guy’s work?

TarheelDem December 9th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

Welcome Steven, Nicco. Thanks BevW for arranging another good author.

Two observations:
Self-organized networks over time tend to develop nodes and then hierarchies of nodes that create privileged patterns of communication and left to themselves either strain under the added traffic or demand through maintenance more resources. This is true as the number of peers in a peer-to-peer network increase. This requires design intervention to make sure that the network doesn’t drift into more and more centralization. Is there a sense of how to scale up progressive peer networks so as to manage this effect?

There is a traditional political term for peer progressive. That term is “anarchist”. There is a reason that the whole Occupy (or Take the Square) movement resonates with this sort of political idea and why it finds social media so effective to its action.

eCAHNomics December 9th, 2012 at 2:38 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 23

WMD is being reprised wrt Syria. Everyone seems just a fooled as they were 9 years ago. How has internet made any diff?

BTW, WMD/Iraq was not a policy screw up. It went exactly as our masters planned.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:39 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 25

Leaders don’t go away in these models, but their role changes. What goes away is the leader-as-decider (to quote a former president.) To use the software metaphor, Linus Torvalds was and is crucial to the Linux open source movement as a leader in the sense that he 1) started the project and 2) continues to inspire new generations of coders to contribute to it. But he doesn’t have some kind of executive control over Linux, the way, say, Steve Ballmer has ultimately the final control over what goes into Windows.

Phoenix Woman December 9th, 2012 at 2:42 pm

That’s an old Usenet term for needy individuals who are so attention-hungry that they deliberately set out to disrupt and/or hijack conversations. It had its origins in an old Star Trek episode where alien Energy Creatures set Federation personnel and Klingons to fighting each other so it could absorb their anger energy.

If you’re ever seen the acronym “DNFTEC”, it stands for “Do Not Feed The Energy Creatures” — and used to be a common admonition by Usenet and other online habitués to warn people not to engage known Energy Creatures.

gmoke December 9th, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Attended the 11/6/12 MIT panel on your book. Here are my notes.

To my mind, the discussion was less about the electoral politics we usually associate with that word and more about how peer-to-peer [P2P] networks are already being used among diverse populations for civic activities and many other things. When Susan Crawford, founder of OneWebDay, paraphrased Kevin Kelly by saying “The internet was built by love. It’s a gift,” (The Web Runs on Love, Not Greed), I thought of the idea and the story behind the title of the book You Can’t Steal a Gift about jazz players Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Milt Hinton, and Nat King Cole by Gene Lees (Lincoln, NE: Univ of NE Press, 2001 ISBN 0-8032-8034-3):

Phil Woods: “I was in Birdland, stoned, as I often was in those days. Dizzy and Art Blakey kidnapped me. Took me home to Dizzy’s and sat me down and said, ‘What are you moaning about? Why don’t you get your own band?’…
“I asked them if a white guy could make it, considering the music was a black invention. I was getting a lot of flak about stealing not only Bird’s music but his wife and family as well [Woods was married to Chan, Charlie Parker's widow]… And Dizzy said, ‘You can’t steal a gift. Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.’”

Recent work in behavioral economics shows that we

“do things because we like it, because it’s interesting, and because it serves a larger purpose.”
Source: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink NY: Penguin Group, 2009 ISBN 978-1-59448-884-9
Peer to peer networks are already based upon a common purpose. A common, unifying purpose along with a measure of autonomy, and a chance for mastery seem to be stronger motivators than money or other extrinsic rewards.
Voluntary cooperation on common projects also fits into Gandhian economics as swadeshi, local production. Daily practice of swadeshi was the basis of both Gandhian nonviolence and economics. Can we think of Linux and Wikipedia and the other usual suspects examples of global/local P2P as swadeshi systems?

Mutual exchange within a system of voluntary cooperation was the heart of Kropotkin’s proposed system of economics:

He believed that should a society be socially, culturally, and industrially developed enough to produce all the goods and services required by it, then no obstacle, such as preferential distribution, pricing or monetary exchange will stand as an obstacle for all taking what they need from the social product.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/
Clay Shirky, in his book, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (NY: Penguin Press, 2010 ISBN 978-1-59420-253-7), wonders:
“But what if the contributors aren’t workers? What if they really are contributors, quite specifically intending their contributions to be acts of sharing rather than production? What if their labors are labors of love?”
If work becomes sharing, then we might be approaching a gift economy in which reciprocity and fairness become more important. Anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote that there is an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation to repay in gift economies but that’s only the beginning of complications. Economies, whether capitalist, Communist, socialist, anarchist, gift, or barter are more complex than any single human mind.
If we do want to talk about P2P and other kinds of networked politics, I would first examine why grassroots/netroots party politics has not yet generated grassroots/netroots governance despite being successful at electing Governors and Presidents. For example, Deval Patrick of MA won his first term in 2006 with a masterful grassroots/netroots campaign that bubbled up with as well as trickled down. The two way communication lasted through the transition when Patrick installed a business as usual staff and got into trouble about curtains and Cadillacs with the Boston press. When Obama ran in 2008 with Davids Alexrod and Plouffe, who both worked on the Patrick campaign, I wondered if the same thing would happen.

I do not know of any politicians who are currently trying to govern as well as campaign with a grassroots/netroots P2P network but, if P2P continues to be effective within the civic and business spheres, there will be.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:44 pm
In response to TarheelDem @ 31

I spent a long period of time debating whether to have an extended section about anarchism in the book, because you’re right, there are some fascinating connections. I ultimately decided to just make a passing reference to it, because I wanted the book to be short and punchy and not too bound up in the full complexity of the political theory that preceded it. The other problem is that in 19th-century anarchism there is a strong thread of not believing in private property and other traditional forms of ownership. That’s a place where I think peer progressives today are very different. (See the quote above about peer progressives believing in the power of markets, etc.)

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:45 pm
In response to TarheelDem @ 31

@TarhellDem – I think you’re on to something. A lot of the evidence about how “peer networks” produce value and solve problems shows that it tends to be a handful of over-active people who drive the bulk of the action/value. This introduces potential challenges when power/politics are involved.

I worry a lot less about the drift towards centralization, because I think the balance of power in our technology favors the individual — virtually every technical innovation of the last two decades has driven power towards the individual, away from the institution. Instead of centralization, I worry about demagogues — individuals who are dramatically empowered by the technology, and use it to galvanize the crowd/the mob by appealing to our worst tendencies and prejudices.

P.S. One of my heroes is Ammon Hennacy, a Christian Anarchist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammon_Hennacy

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

What I’m driving at with the role of leadership in the peer network is that I would argue that a different set of skills are required. The responsibilities are different (are they greater or lesser?) and the methods and tactics available are different. I would argue the peer network makes individual leaders more powerful (they operate without the constraints of traditional institutions) and paradoxically more fragile (the network can just as easily tear them down as build them up).

SanderO December 9th, 2012 at 2:49 pm
In response to eCAHNomics @ 32

This scam can be played whenever they need to skeer the people… You can see this a mile away.

eCAHNomics December 9th, 2012 at 2:51 pm
In response to gmoke @ 35

Thanks for the comment. I have dipped my baby toe into complexity and self-organizing possibilities. Not enough to respond intelligently to your comment, but will reread & follow up on your links.

gmoke December 9th, 2012 at 2:51 pm

If you wanna deal with climate change on a P2P basis, you could do worse than start an open design process on more efficient cookstoves to reduce black carbon and concentrate on reducing the other short term climate forcers like tropospheric ozone. Poorest first, folks, poorest first.

Solar IS Civil Defense is another way to build resilience into the developed world and can be coupled with basic electricity for the quarter of the world’s population that does not yet have access to electricity: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0mjqjgZ64E

Went to another panel at MIT recently, on Occupy. It was interesting that none of the panel and none of the audience mentioned that Occupy had jumped from street demo to shadow government with their latest initiatives in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. That’s quite a distance to travel in such a short time on Gene Sharp’s list of non-violent tactics.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:51 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 37

The other interesting trend in these peer network systems is that it tends to create this interesting middle zone of hobbyists and pro-ams who contribute part-time to the system. We saw this with journalism where we went from a space where 1% of us created journalism (or even less) and 99% of us consumed it to a new regime where some meaningful population of bloggers and social media users started contributing their own views and filters. The same is happening with government: instead of a clear line separating elected officials, bureaucrats, and voters, there’s now a blurring that’s starting to happen, where ordinary citizens are getting involved to help governments be more responsive or adaptive to their needs (particularly in the local realm, with things like 311 and SeeClickFix, but also in the prize-backed challenges of challenge.gov or the open patent review process, etc.)

eCAHNomics December 9th, 2012 at 2:53 pm
In response to SanderO @ 39

You & I and many others recognize it instantly. But the PTB network keeps replaying and peeps who can’t afford the time to think about how they are being played, fall into the trap every time.

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 2:53 pm

On the property front — I think would argue there is a strong thread in the peer progressive “movement” (if we can call it that) that doesn’t believe in private property. From re-thinking IP / creative commons, to the trends of collaborative consumption, attitudes about property and money aren’t full anarchist, but they are not exactly Atlas Shrugged either.

eCAHNomics December 9th, 2012 at 2:55 pm

involved to help governments be more responsive

Disagree. Govts have become less responsive to 99ers, not more.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 2:56 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 44

yes, very good point Nicco. that’s crucial to what makes us different from libertarians: markets and private property can be very useful tools and institutions (particularly when the corporations themselves are more peer network in structure) but they are only PART of the story. There are many other ways that humans can live and share and collaborate with each other that don’t involve commercial transactions.

Phoenix Woman December 9th, 2012 at 2:59 pm

I’ve noticed that the Occupy movement, which was attacked incessantly for not having a specific focus and for valuing process over results, seems to have found a way to implement its ideas in a concrete manner — and to show that it can both plan ahead and move quickly when the situation warrants — with its Occupy Sandy relief efforts.

eCAHNomics December 9th, 2012 at 3:01 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 47

Occupy Sandy being shut down by Bloomie who will condemn property, sell it to his RE developers for pennies on the dollar. Development is one impt way FoB (Friends of Bloomie) make gazillions.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:03 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 34

ah, yes, Energy Creatures, I know them well. :)

Actually, they’re part of the answer to the question of why the Internet isn’t an echo chamber. If the Internet were really a place where like-minded people could now cluster and block out all competing points of view, then the problem with all online discussion boards would be there was too much consensus and not enough arguing going on. But of course, anyone who has ever spent any time in an online discussion (from ECHO and the Well and USENET to today) will tell you, a lack of argument is not the problem with online conversation. Quite the opposite, actually.

The best study that really looks in detail at the “ideological isolation” (as they call it) of different forms of media and real-world environments is here:


Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Before I launch into my next comment, let me offer a preface: I heartily endorse and believe in peer progressivism. So my critique is in the interests of making it stronger.

My comment/question is actually about the journalism space. For several years I have assigned a blog post you wrote about the ecosystem of journalism (if i’m not mistaken, the blog post ended up in Future Perfect in a modified form). I’m just not sure how well it holds in the realm of investigative journalism. You take this on pretty directly in the book — both investigate journalism and foreign affairs / conflict reporting. I think we’re seeing some strong evidence that the web news ecosystem can cover foreign affairs and conflict reporting pretty well. But I’m having real trouble on the investigative journalism front. Holding power accountable is hard — and expensive. And I’m coming to the conclusion that investigative journalism, that “iron core” of accountability journalism, is one of the limitations of a peer network approach.

Sure, technology and politics will have great ecosystems for covering them — because they are fun and exciting. But then I think of a story like the LA Times story of Bell, California which won a pulitzer two years ago. It was the kind of story that, I would argue, an ecosystem could have found and broken open, but it didn’t — because the power of the leaders/institutions involved went through great lengths to shut down dissent. So I wonder about peer networks and holding power accountable — in particular I wonder about the ability of a Baran Web to hold a Legrand Star accountable, especially on issues that aren’t sexy or interesting or compelling.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:06 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 47

Nicco asked about things I wish I had included in the book, and Occupy Sandy is certainly one of them. (It happened after the book came out, of course, so it’s not my fault.)

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

On a totally different topic, do you have any plans/aspiration to run for office, or to use your book to build a platform for others to run for office? In the book, you mention Liquid Democracy, which reminds me of the Pirate Party movement across the EU. I’ve wondered what it would take to encourage a Pirate Party type entity in the US, perhaps as an “insurgent” movement inside the Democratic party, same way the Tea Party is an “insurgent” movement inside the Republican party.

Phoenix Woman December 9th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

The term “anarchist” seems to have been dipped in ink even blacker than that usually reserved for the word “Marxist”, and often comes with the descriptive word “bombthrowing” attached. Yet you seem to indicate that anarchists aren’t really that bad, something that may shock many. Would you like to discuss why anarchists really aren’t the Big Bad Wolves of traditional portrayal?

DWBartoo December 9th, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Thank you, Steven and Nicco, for joining us this evening.

Steven, what do you consider are the chances that governments around the world, including the Obama Administration, might simply decide that the internet is too “dangerous” to THEIR power and “control” and move to greatly restrict “access” or shut the “systems” down completely?


Phoenix Woman December 9th, 2012 at 3:16 pm

Indeed, it’s doing very well. Aside from one of its hubs having to move recently, it seems to be rolling on all cylinders and is working on long-term efforts at educating the residents on how to resist “Shock Doctrine” style efforts by the elites to take advantage of the disaster by swooping in and buying up or condemning distressed properties.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:23 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 50

I think it’s entirely possible that investigative journalism (and other important services) will ultimately be harder to support via peer networks than by the older institutions. Certainly it’s a key one to watch as the landscape evolves.

But if it is harder to support IJ (investigative journalism) in the new model, why exactly? Just because of the cost? Is it partly because IJ doesn’t actually have a big audience, but nonetheless keeps the powers-that-be in check? So in the old days of the newspaper monopoly, the readers would actually skip the front page expose on city hall corruption and go read the “sexy” sports or business stories, but because it was on the front page, the story helped end the corruption it exposed?

Maybe that’s right. But I still think investigations by their very nature are much easier in the networked world, either through the opening up over government data and through the mechanism of the crowd helping the IJ with its sleuthing. It just seems to me that there should be a way to support journalists working in this mode through some combination of crowd funding, nonprofit support, and whatever remains of the traditional news industry…

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:24 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 54

In some sense, that’s happening right now. at this very minute, there is a big conference of governments and other stakeholders (like corporations) about the future of the internet. The international telecommunications regulations treaty is being renegotiated in Dubai, where 193 nations are gathered to revise this UN Treaty. A good summary of what is at stake is here:

But I’ve been following the events on a daily basis at Access Now’s blog:

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:25 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 52

I definitely do NOT have any plans to run for office. But I am actively trying to figure out how to advance these ideas now that I’m mostly done with the official book tour. There is much more to be done, for sure. The Peer Party has a nice ring to it, does it not? :)

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Excellent point about the process of investigative journalism being dramatically improved and extended by peer-to-peer networks; the only question is why more major media outlets don’t take advantage of it! Which leads me to the question: why do these traditional institutions seem to have such giant blind spots? (I’m thinking something from Where Good Ideas Come From might be useful here…)

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:31 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 54

I think it would be unlikely coming from the Obama administration, which has had a number of important pro-Net and peer progressive-like initiatives (challenge.gov, all the open gov programs, etc). And remember the White House was one of the first to turn against SOPA in Washington, before the Wikipedia blackouts. But yes, there are many other institutions that are threatened by the Net, but I think the Net is too resilient at this point to be switched off (in large part because of its peer-to-peer architecture, of course.)

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:32 pm

The Peer Party does have a nice ring! That immediately makes me think about how to go about organizing such a thing.. At the end of your book you nicely summarize the issues platform of such a movement. Any political leaders out there who are getting close?

On a different note, what was your favorite part of writing this book?

DWBartoo December 9th, 2012 at 3:34 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 57

Ah, much appreciation for those links, Nicco. I consider that governments and such “stakeholders” as corporate “persons” are very much concerned with and likely VERY active in seeking to repress the democratic potential of actual mass communication …

Do you know of any techno wizards who are anticipating what might be put “up”, by the people, in the event that the PTB decide, or “determine”, that the internet, as it exists, is antithetical to vested “interests” and, or, “national security” as the elites consider it to be?


Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:37 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 62

I’m not too worried about it; I agree with Steven that it is pretty hard to switch the internet off at this point. Mubarak tried doing that in Egypt, and it didn’t work out well. Not to mention the trends in mesh networking (see http://oti.newamerica.net/commotion_wireless_0 ) suggest that centralized control of the internet is approaching a vanishing point in the near future.

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Steven, another question for you: One thing that was pretty interesting to me was your discussion of corporations that out-perform the market by being focused on creating value in communities rather than creating stock profits. As part of that discussion you talked about Robert Noyce and the culture he created and nurtured in Silicon Valley. Would love to hear more about Noyce — especially any recommended reading you might be able to suggest.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:42 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 61

The thing I’m thinking about is what is the proper organizational form for this kind of idea. I mean, if it were 1985, day, we’d go out and raise money to create a think tank in DC called the Peer Progressive Institute, and put out a little publication, etc. But obviously whatever we’re building now has to be a peer network itself, and has to live on the Net as much as in a physical place.

As far as my favorite part of writing the book goes, I had a lovely bit of serendipitous research that led to the whole Legrand Star vs. Baran Web extended metaphor, which is one of the key things that holds the book together, IMHO. I wrote about it here:


I love this part of the research process so much — I’m in the middle of another exploratory phase right now, and it’s just so much fun. Just last night I was more or less simultaneously researching Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas, HP Lovecraft’s bio, Arthur Conan Doyle’s obsession with fairies, the history of film special effects, and Teddy Roosevelt’s tenure as police commissioner of NYC. Not sure exactly yet where the keepers are, and what the real connections are that bind these things together, but I’ll figure it out…

gmoke December 9th, 2012 at 3:43 pm

P2P investigative journalism:
crowdsourcing legislators’ opinions on talkingpointsmemo
emptywheel’s consistent bird-dogging of security issues

All different aspects and approaches.

Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:45 pm

You have the most awesome job, ever. That list of topics you were exploring last night makes me salivate. Not to sound too strange or anything.

DWBartoo December 9th, 2012 at 3:45 pm

So then, Steven, you do not consider that the administration’s intent to collect anything they wish from the internet, in the name of national or “Homeland security”, will have a chilling affect upon the use of that system?

Have you no concerns with the FISA Amendment and other such broad and essentially un-Constitutional legislation and the secret FISA court?

Frankly, whatever use Obama has made, politically, of the internet, I do not see his administration as being especially in favor of the net’s openness or its capacity to alter media-based propaganda. That you might understand my bias, let me make clear that I consider the media to be a part of the political class, which class, as a whole, does not fare well at the “hands” and insights of the net and those who would use it to further actual, participatory democracy.


TarheelDem December 9th, 2012 at 3:48 pm

One of the questions arises with software an ideas is “What does ownership actually mean?” Which raises the possibility of dramatically redifining what is private and what is public in a peer network. Or what is attributable to the individual and what is attributable to the network as a whole or a section of the network.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:48 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 64

Did you read the whole Tom Wolfe piece I quoted from? It’s pretty great all the way through:


By the way, the whole theme of “conscious capitalism” that I wrote about in that chapter — ie, corporations themselves re-structuring to behave more like peer networks, including key things like high-low wage ratios, etc — is addressed in much more detail in this book coming out next month, co-authored by John Mackey of Whole Foods:


Nicco Mele December 9th, 2012 at 3:50 pm

We’re in the closing round here – Thanks again, Steven, for your time and attention, and for writing a great book. Any closing remarks?

For the record, I think you should start an email signup for people who want to be part of the Peer Party or whatever form it takes…

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:52 pm
In response to DWBartoo @ 68

I do have concerns (grave concerns) about those abuses of privacy, but I don’t see them as threats to the Internet itself. I seem them as threats that emanate largely from top-down institutions that continue to have way more power than they should. And as Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, we should remember that in these kinds of cases, the peer-to-peer architecture of the net has made it easier for the old authorities to do their dirty work, because our lives are so much more transparent and machine readable in the age of social media, etc. That’s partially why I don’t see the Internet as some kind of purely utopian development. It can be exploited by the top-down forces in many ways…

BevW December 9th, 2012 at 3:53 pm

As we come to the end of this great Book Salon discussion,

Steven, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book, and new ways to look the future.

Nicco, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Steven’s website and books

Nicco’s website and books

Thanks all, Have a great week.

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

FDL Book Salon has a Facebook page too

hpschd December 9th, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Thanks all, a very interesting discussion.
I have the book (library copy) I am still reading.
BTW the Toronto library system has 27 copies and most are checked out.

Steven Berlin Johnson December 9th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

This has been so much fun.

if you’re interested in learning more, by all means read the book, but more importantly, if you’re interested in the next steps we’re working on, stay tuned and I’ll have more information soon as we figure out our plans. (An email signup would be a good start!) I’m @stevenbjohnson on Twitter and my blog is http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com so anything we end up doing with the peer progressive movement will be prominently displayed there…

thanks everyone, and I look forward to continuing the conversation on many platforms!


DWBartoo December 9th, 2012 at 3:57 pm
In response to Nicco Mele @ 71

Yes, Nicco, I would like to thank both you and Steven for a very informative, very timely, and very important Book Salon.

This Book Salon has been both most interesting and very useful, in a much-appreciated practical sense, as is Steven’s book.

My appreciation to Bev, as always.

And my continuing appreciation to the freedom fighters who gather here.


TarheelDem December 9th, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Thanks, Steven and Nicco for a fascinating Book Salon. And thanks to BevW for pulling it together.

DWBartoo December 9th, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Very well said, Steven, and once again, I thank you for your clear and well-considered responses and the very important book that you have gifted the rest of us with … I look forward to your critically important thoughts and valuable contributions to understanding and democracy, in future.


UCT1 December 9th, 2012 at 5:29 pm

I don’t understand how you can have a peer-to-peer progressive computer network when every bit is surveiled and controlled by Big Brother.

Phoenix Woman December 9th, 2012 at 5:34 pm

Thank you for being here!

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