Review: ‘Future Perfect’ by Steven Johnson

by Kim on December 13, 2012 · 9 comments

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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!

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