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Review: ‘Future Perfect’ by Steven Johnson

by Kim on December 13, 2012 · 9 comments

Post image for Review: ‘Future Perfect’ by Steven Johnson

Title: Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age
Author: Steven Johnson
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Publisher: Riverhead
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: It’s embarrassing that it’s taken me this long to write about Future Perfect, which I read almost as soon as it arrived in the mail in September. It was also a book that I seemed to read exactly the right time, a book that articulated a new-to-me political philosophy at a moment when the limits of a two party political system were starting to wear me down. Future Perfect is an exploration of a political worldview that is deeply optimistic that progress is still possible and that new solutions will emerge as we all learn to work better together.

I tend to really like Steven Johnson’s ideas and writing. His fourth book, Everything Bad is Good For You, is one of my favorite books about popular culture and the benefits of all sorts of high- and low-brow entertainment. In The Ghost Map, Johnson looked at the way radical thinking could change society. And I while haven’t read Where Good Ideas Come From, his book about innovation, if it’s anything like these three I know it will be good. In general though, I love the way Johnson approaches his subjects looking for the positive and articulating ways in which we can look at the world as a better place. And Future Perfect is no exception.

In the book, Johnson makes an argument that we live in a world of steady, incremental progress that has steadily made the world a better place, but we as citizens don’t have a good idea of what this progress is or who is responsible because these stories don’t get regularly told or celebrated. Simply put, Johnson credits this slow change to the development of peer networks across the public and private sector, and ties this progress into a broader worldview that looks to distributed peer networks to make social change. Johnson calls people who believe in these networks “peer progressives” and at one point, explains their general political philosophy in this way:

Peer progressives are wary of excessive top-down government control and bureaucracy; they want more civic participation and accountability in public-sector issues that affect their communities. They want more choice and experimentation in public schools; they think, on the whole, that the teachers’ unions have been a hindrance to educational innovation. They think markets can be a great force for innovation and rising standards of living, but they also think that corporations are far too powerful and top-heavy in their social architecture. They believe the rising wealth and income gaps need to be restored to levels closer to the 1950s. They believe that they campaign finance system is poisoning democracy, but want to retain an individual’s right to support candidates directly. They want lower prices for prescription drugs without threatening the innovation engine of the pharmaceutical industry. They are socially libertarian, and consider diversity to be a key cultural value. They believe the decentralized, peer-to-peer architecture of the Internet has been a force for good, and that governments (or corporations) shouldn’t mess with it.

And that is ultimately what being a peer progressive is all about: the believe that new institutions and new social architectures are now available to us in a way that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, and that our continued progress as a society will come from our adopting those institutions in as many facets of modern life as possible.

Reading that section, I know it sounds like Johnson is writing about a philosophy that takes a little bit of everything in a way that doesn’t seem cohesive. But if you actually read the whole book, I think he makes an effective case that all of those political ends can be achieved through the various ways in which peer-to-peer networks are developing successfully in a variety of industries and institutions. The peer progressive worldview doesn’t map well to either major political party, but I think that is part of what made it seem so appealing to me.

Despite the rather broad premise, Future Perfect was quick read that really spun my head around at a time when I didn’t think politics could continue to surprise me. If any of these ideas about connections and progress sound interesting or appealing, Future Perfect should get on your reading list.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeanne December 13, 2012 at 6:32 am

We liked Everything Bad Is Good For You and I just asked Ron if he’d read this one yet–he said no. So we’re glad to know it’s another good one, and will look for it.

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Kim December 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm

I loved Everything Bad Is Good for You. I want to reread it sometime soon, just because I think his writing about pop culture is so smart. I hope you both enjoy this one if you get a chance to read it!

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Stephanie December 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm

I really liked Everything Bad is Good for you, and this one sounds even more intriguing. I’m adding it to my list. Great review, Kim!

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maphead December 13, 2012 at 10:23 pm

I LOVED The Ghost Map and this one by Johnson is on my list to read. I recently caught an extended interview with him on book TV and I was very impressed. Here’s a link if you are interested:
http://www.booktv.org/Watch/13818/In+Depth+Steven+Johnson.aspx

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Kim December 18, 2012 at 7:43 pm

Thanks, I will be watching that!

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Nikki Steele December 14, 2012 at 9:44 am

Fantastic — I feel like my husband and I have already been batting these ideas back and forth, so really want to read a formalized argument from Johnson. I’ve seen his books well regarded in just about every review I’ve read about him. Why haven’t I read him yet? No idea, but I do know there will be a library visit very soon.

Thanks for the great review!

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Kim December 18, 2012 at 7:44 pm

As far as I can remember, I’ve seen universally good reviews for his books. I think he does a good job building arguments without going too far — there’s always room for debate as you read (at least I feel like there is!).

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Joanna December 18, 2012 at 10:36 am

This sounds good but I am especially intrigued by the other one, Everything Bad is Good for you. Anything about the importance of popular culture is good by me.

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Kim December 18, 2012 at 7:45 pm

That one is really fascinating, especially his discussions about television and video games and how they can actually help our brains rather than hurt them. I haven’t read it for awhile, but I feel like there’s a reread in my future.

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