In the 19th century, France developed a railway system whose lines all merged in Paris. This central-hub system, dubbed the “Legrand Star,” was intended to be more efficient than Germany’s railways, which were more an interconnected web than a spoked wheel. Yet German trains transported troops, supplies, and messages more efficiently than French railroads, helping the Germans win the Franco-Prussian War.
“Think of the Legrand Star as a kind of shorthand symbol for the ways that states like to organize the world,” writes Steven Johnson in “Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.” “They concentrate power in a central location; they make the peripheries, the edges of the network, feeder systems for the main core; they simplify; they favor broad strokes over unpredictable swerves; they prefer master planners over local knowledge. They look best from above.”
In “Future Perfect,” the Legrand Star serves as a cautionary tale about rigid systems and institutions, where, Johnson writes, “all the intelligence lay at the center of the network.” These structures tend to be less resilient and adaptable to change, often embracing top-down, noninclusive decision-making, with closed, not open, information flows.
Johnson is a writer who thinks about ideas, where they come from and why they last. Over numerous books, from “The Invention of Air” to “Where Good Ideas Come From,” he has charted the junction of innovation, technology, and history to show how good thinking emerges. The author may also be, I suspect, a frustrated social activist who’d like to change the way we tackle social, political, and economic puzzles.
If the culprit is the centralized problem solving practiced by most businesses and governments, “Future Perfect” opens by proposing a solution: Use more of what Johnson calls decentralized “peer networks.” These groups are user-driven, responsive, and encourage participation. Their very structure mirrors what Johnson calls the original “pure peer networks, owned by everyone” — the Internet. A peer network’s fishnet of connections fosters a “hive mind,” harnessing a “dense network of human intelligence.”
In the second half of the book, Johnson draws on multidisciplinary examples to demonstrate his thesis. Already, he claims, peer networks have driven the protest movements of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Companies that empower employees to make management decisions, so-called public stakeholder firms such as Whole Foods, are more profitable than more hierarchical ones. On the dark side, nimble peer networks also work great for Al Qaeda.
Naturally, Johnson would like to see his ideas applied widely. Nascent participatory budgeting efforts, letting citizens vote on how their tax dollars are being spent, could be used by more municipalities; the same for 311 call centers, such as New York City’s, which help pinpoint community problems. Crucial but less profitable drugs could be developed via government prize-backed challenges. Even the downfall of traditional print journalism is a good thing, “Future Perfect” posits, because peer-written news will produce better reporting. “In the long run, diversity trumps ability.”
In clear and engaging prose, Johnson writes about this emerging movement. The only quibble: Johnson’s notion of armies of peer progressives changing the world sounds mighty familiar. They’ve had a less-flashy name for decades: grass-roots community organizers. Yes, the Internet lets the citizenry share information and harness greater power. What Johnson proposes — people connecting, actually or virtually, and hashing out common ground or confronting authority — isn’t so much groundbreaking thinking as it is a reminder to refresh community decision making for the digital age.
Still, “Future Perfect” is a buoyant and hopeful book. Given the inability of our government to enact worthwhile change, and the near guarantee that Washington’s gridlock will only worsen regardless of which party wins this November, we’re going to need all the help we can get. “Future Perfect” reminds us we already have the treatment. We just need to use it.Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com and on Twitter @ethanfreak.