Allen Lane, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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'

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'