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

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before