March 15, 2013

Finding the third path to progress

By Steven Johnson
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In Future Perfect—as in earlier books such as The Ghost Map and Everything Bad Is Good For You—Steven Johnson seeks to discover the processes by which truths are incrementally revealed and goals attained. His inspiration for Future Perfect arose from a headline in USA Today that said “Airlines Go Two Years With No Fatalities.” It set him to thinking about how this remarkable record of safety had been achieved and why it wasn’t bigger news. In looking for answers, he became convinced that the drift of history is toward improving human conditions, even though isolated—but heavily publicized—setbacks make many of us believe that life is becoming more perilous.

In today’s political scene, Johnson notes, two contrasting philosophies hold themselves up as roads to progress: the market-driven, libertarian route and the top-down, central-planning approach. He maintains, however, that there is yet another way of bettering society, one that overcomes the limitations of these competing orthodoxies without jettisoning their useful features. Those who subscribe to this new way he calls “peer progressives.” While these people recognize the genius of markets in ferreting out and satisfying certain needs, he says, they are also aware that markets are indifferent and sometimes hostile to meeting such other needs as “community, creativity, education [and] personal and environmental health.” Still, he argues, the more minds there are focused on delineating and solving social problems, the better the results will be. What government can do—at least sometimes—is consolidate, analyze and implement these torrents of data and suggestions.

To illustrate peer progressivism at its best, Johnson cites dozens of examples of that process in action, from New York City’s 311 service that enables citizens to report a wide range of problems that the city can then chart and follow up on, to Kickstarter, the website that allows artists and entrepreneurs to raise private funds to support their projects; from corporate innovators like Whole Foods, which caps executive pay at no more than 19 times that of the average worker’s wages, to a host of private and government organizations that offer prize money—rather than market-thwarting patents—for new ideas and products.

This book is not a call for peer progressives to band together for political purposes. Rather, it aims to demonstrate the dynamism and value that ensues when a great number of diverse people network together to solve common problems. This it does well.

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Future Perfect

Future Perfect

By Steven Johnson
ISBN 9781594488207

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