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Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, By Steven Johnson
The 'information classes' have more influence than ever. But can they log on to a promised land?
It's a windowless office, crammed with screen-bound geeks (mostly male), everyone spangled by an off-camera glitterball. Photos have been circulating over the last fortnight of "the Cave", the data-centre of the Obama for America campaign. Into its algorithms, every available scintilla of voter-preference was poured; out of which, an epochal electoral victory was squeezed.
If nothing else, this is the sinister image of the "quant" redeemed: rather than enabling the financial rapacity of plutocrats like Mitt Romney, these number-crunchers were deployed to halt him in his tracks. But it's also another sign of a longer and wider power-shift, which the Democrat US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich anticipated in the 1990s as the rise of the "symbolic analysts": that third of a modern economy where "mind workers" engage in processing information and symbols.
The very best of these helped win the Republic last week, formatting a nationwide coalition from tiny demographic fragments. Their culture - represented by the near-deification of figures like the late Steve Jobs - bestrides the mainstream. Can we start to talk about the dominance of the "information classes", in the same way as we used to talk about the rise of the bourgeoisie?
As the old bearded guy Dr Marx also used to say: does the Obama victory - headed by the Geek-in-Chief - indicate that they're not just a class in themselves, but a class for themselves? That is: aware that they have interests, a particular claim on power and resources, and the confidence to mobilise in that direction?
If the info-classes ever needed a mirror in which to recognise themselves, they could do no worse than Steven Johnson's new book. To be called the "Darwin of Technology" by Steve Jobs's biographer Walter Isaacson is a blurb quote to die for. Over the years, Johnson's elegantly-phrased combinations of history, cultural critique and complexity theory have carved out a solid niche for him in the "big ideas" stretch of the bookshelf.
Yet with Future Perfect, Johnson is putting a pause on tracing gossamer connections between slime moulds and 19th-century city maps, or Joseph Priestley and Gaia theory. He's bringing his status to the bully pulpit, and proposing a political movement (called "the peer progressives") in which the geeks inherit the earth. Or at least, lift their moony faces from their retina-friendly displays, stop quanting the data, and begin to assert the clout of knowledge-workerism in government and the public sphere.
That direction is one that would have been familiar to the Big Society Tories, in the first flush of their idealism. Johnson's American peer progressives would enthusiastically sign up to Cameron's axiom (now bromide) that "there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state". They're wary of top-down government control, and enthusiastic about "civic accountability and participation in public-sector issues". They want "choice and experiment" in state schools, and think teaching unions "hinder innovation". They think markets and open networks are great at keeping new ideas flowing, but are suspicious of corporate governance and political over-regulation of the flows.
To British ears, this has a familiar recent ring: Burke's small platoons and Hayek's catallaxy, as rendered by the proselytising of the smarter Conservatives, like Jesse Norman and Phillip Blond. But it's given a Silicon Valley shimmer by Johnson's internet experience, both as observer and entrepreneur.
It's not that Johnson is mis-describing, for centre-right ends, the "network society" that Manuel Castells identified in the mid-1990s. The social transformation of the Net is undeniable, founded in Paul Baran's idea of the "distributed network" - where power comes not from hierarchy, nor from insurgence, but from the marginal contributions of many which build up a rich commons of information and practice.
Johnson is correct to identify that this pervasive system of communication has made new kinds of value communicable, beyond just money or bureaucracy - and that this shakes up our old institutions. Newspapers can't compete with the way that social media allow us to recommend and annotate the news to our friends and peers. Big corps can't compete with smaller, stakeholder and "employee-owned" companies, inspired by the inclusiveness of the Net, in which peer-oriented work cultures deliver better returns.
Johnson shows how our frustrations with representative democracy could be answered by looking at something pioneered by the anti-copyright Pirate Party, "liquid democracy" (or "proxy" voting). Socialism's problem is that it takes up too many evenings, as Oscar Wilde once put it. But a more active, plebiscitary democracy might work, if we could easily pledge our vote to (or retract it from) a "peer" whom we recognised as expert.
Sounds complicated? Perhaps no more so than the participatory budgeting so prevalent in leftist Latin America - or the elaborately coordinated voluntary labours that go into Wikipedia. Yes, Johnson admits, they're all structures open to gaming and abuse. But are we so happy with the endemic stasis and near-corruption of our current systems?
Many of the illustrative initiatives in this book come from the first Obama administration - so it's worth tracking the aspirations here, to see what appears over the next four years. However, I don't think the fit between data and democracy is always as healthy as Johnson suggests. Are we replacing a neo-liberalism with a "neo-communitarianism" - a society of the Cloud where our behaviour is tracked and modified? Will the peers always behave like peers, or even progressively, to those less capable or connected? Will the temptation to nudge and herd others, as much as empower them, be resisted? Look into Obama's Cave, and see the flicker of the political future.
Pat Kane is author of the forthcoming 'Radical Animal'
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