Book Review: Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age
Are we heading for times of chaos or for times of prosperity and social progress? Steven Johnson's 2012 book called Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age makes the case for a better tomorrow by using network theory to describe changes in society, governance, and innovation. With the focus of the book being technology and its ability to transform society from a centralized system of governance to a completely decentralized peer-to-peer structure (very much like the how the Internet works), Steven Johnson provides a plethora of anecdotal evidence to support his conclusion.
In many ways the book Future Perfect is all about linkages and how changes in technology drive further change in political systems and society. In effect, the author applies the concepts of network theory to society and our system of governance. The book is divided in to three main sections. The first discusses centralized systems of the past and provides ample examples of technological systems that are configured in this manner. Slowly the book transitions to discuss decentralized systems in the same manner. The book concludes in the third act where the author makes the case for the future stating that peer-to-peer systems (the most decentralized system that is possible) offer the most significant advantages to society.
The book provides evidence to suggest that we are heading away from traditional centralized systems in all aspects and that peer-to-peer systems are starting to become more prevalent. Essentially, the authors uses of a series of narratives to make his case and provide circumstantial evidence for his vision of a more connected, and thus better, future and Geo-political atmosphere based on the principles that built the structure of the Internet.
The book opens with an example of the French centralized railway network that was built during the beginning of the industrial revolution. The author explains that even though the trains had a superior design, the system of laying out the tracks became a major issue during the French Revolution because it was inefficient and could easily be broken simply by disabling the central hub. The author compares this to various governments of the world and makes the case for a similar conclusion: a system fraught with inefficiencies and a high propensity for failure.
The middle third of the book discusses several examples of decentralized systems such as: hierarchical government structures, traditional computer systems (before the Internet), as well as capitalism in general and the traditional free market system. In his example regarding computer technology the author discusses how traditional workstation computers were connected to mainframe computers which were then connected to other main frame computers. The author points out the obvious flaws associated with this system.
Much of the discussion is also focused on the inefficiencies of the top-down management system used by many businesses (especially the ones that were created during the industrial revolution). It is noted here that decentralization is more efficient than centralization and has a much lower failure rate.
The last third of the book discusses several examples of peer-to-peer systems starting with the modern structure of the Internet as the basis. After explaining the structure of the Internet the author starts talking about crowd funding and how this network has allowed the average person to get involved with things that would have never been possible before in the traditional free market system without technology.
Future Perfect Overview
Themes: Linkages Between Technology and Modern Political Systems
Steven Johnson, makes a strong case for improving technological innovation by essentially replacing the traditional inefficient system of patents with a system of awarding prizes to inventors that solve problems while also making the solution available to the public for immediate use. Evidence is given to support the prize-giving model of stimulating innovation and the author even provides a historical look at how the Royal Society of London used this technique to make innovation possible. As far as innovation is concerned, Johnson shows that a good idea can come from anyone (or using the network terminology, any node) and that the traditional patent system impedes innovation because it is centralized and highly inefficient.
Another one of Johnson's Conclusions is how government operations could be much more efficient and effective if it adopted a peer-to-peer structure. He gives examples of some communities in South America who have adopted this form of government and how much better their society has become by doing so. It is noted here that peer-to-peer systems are the most efficient network structure and that it has a virtually no chance of failure. This is because there is no central hub that could fail and the only way to stop the system is to destroy every link and hub within it. Basically the book concludes that a government structured just like the Internet would bring back the power to the people.
Underneath the major theme of technological networks is the connection between these structures and the political systems of today. As I've already mentioned, the author discusses a variety of governments, how they are structured, and then how "good" they are at serving the people. Furthermore, it is implied that not only does this technology serve as the basis of comparison, but it also serves as the infrastructure needed to change our form of government from a decentralized one to a peer-to-peer structure.
Objectivity and Value
Steven Johnson writes from a libertarian perspective and thus his approach to analyzing technology and politics is biased towards libertarian values. In Johnson's argument he uses the term "peer progressives" to describe people who support political freedom and believe in the supremacy of peer collaboration and giving the power back to the people. They also believe that systems modeled like the structure of the Internet are direction that we need to go as a society. In the perspective of the book, the Internet embodies freedom and localized governance at its fullest extent.
Future Perfect by Steven Johnson
I found the book to be both interesting and engaging as it challenged my traditional view of the "big picture" systems currently at work in our world. Whatever your political affiliation or position on the future, I think that you would find that this book has an appealing take on the on society and how technology is changing things for the better. I don't think that the goal of the book is to convince or persuade anybody to change their way of thinking. Instead, it seems that Steven Johnson simply wishes to present a case for forward progress in the future based upon concepts rooted in network theory. In either case, I believe that most people would at least find the stories a very good read. I would indeed recommend this book to anyone who has an open mind or would simply like a obtain an alternate perspective of our technologically connected world.