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Comrades, Join the “Peer Progressive” Movement!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Fed up with Obomney? Sick of both Democrats and Republicans? Do you see the parties’ similarities—their cowardly hawkishness and craven obeisance to deep-pocketed donors–as more significant than their differences? Looking for a fresh new approach to governance and social problem-solving? Then you might consider becoming a “peer progressive.”

Peer progressives believe that “peer networks,” consisting of many people of roughly equal status freely swapping ideas and information, can accomplish things that top-down, centralized, hierarchical organizations can’t. Peer progressives “believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network.”

That quote comes from the new book by science writer Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age (Riverhead Books), which I just reviewed for The Wall Street Journal. Future Perfect is a manifesto both for optimism—which has become my favorite ism—and for the peer progressive movement. Peer progressives resist left wing faith in Big Government and right wing faith in Big Business. They believe in the wisdom of crowds, especially crowds exchanging diverse viewpoints.

Johnson cites research suggesting that a large, diverse group often comes up with better solutions to problems than a smaller, homogeneous group with a higher average IQ, a phenomenon summarized as “diversity trumps ability.” Johnson elaborates: “When groups are exposed to a more diverse range of perspectives, when their values are forced to confront different viewpoints, they are more likely to approach the world in a more nuanced way, and avoid falling prey to crude extremism.”

Diversity, Johnson elaborates, “does not just expand the common ground of consensus. It also increases the larger group’s ability to solve problems.” Peer progressives favor diversity not just for traditional liberal reasons, to counter sexism, racism and other prejudices, but because “we are smarter as a society—more innovative and flexible in our thinking—when diverse perspectives collaborate.”

Peer networks predate the Internet; Johnson sees them at work in the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and other periods of extraordinary creativity. But the Internet and other digital technologies–which reduce the costs, time and effort of communication–have turned out to be astonishingly effective enablers of peer networks. Hence we get Internet-catalyzed marvels ranging from Wikipedia and Kick Starter to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements.

Johnson is especially hopeful that peer networks can revitalize—even revolutionize—politics. He suggests how peer networks might thwart attempts by the rich and powerful to hijack U.S. democracy. We might move closer to “direct democracy,” in which we vote for laws and policies rather than for politicians who are supposed to represent our interests but too often don’t.

Political peer networks are springing up all over the world. Take for example the Israeli-Palestinian Confederation, which calls for incorporating Israel and Palestine into a Swiss-style confederation. The Confederation plans to hold an online election in December to form a virtual parliament. Saleem Ali, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont, notes in National Geographic that the Confederation represents an attempt to “move beyond the stagnation of one-state/two-state fixes.”

The underlying principles of peer networks have been explored by other writers. Johnson’s evangelical anti-authoritarianism reminds me a bit of the journalist Kevin Kelly, whose 1994 book Out of Control insisted that because nature organizes itself without any centralized control, we should too. But whereas Kelly came off as a bit of a crank, Johnson has a knack for sounding reasonable.

Couple of caveats: One, Johnson neglects to address the potential of peer networks for solving two of our biggest problems: militarism and climate change. In my Wall Street Journal review, I urged Johnson and other peer progressives to start thinking of ways to tackle the problems of warfare and excessive fossil-fuel consumption.

Caveat two comes from my friend and colleague–my peer!–Andy Russell, a historian of technology at Stevens Institute of Technology. Andy objects to Johnson’s claim that the Internet is itself the product of a peer network. Johnson calls Arpanet, the Pentagon-funded network that gave rise to the Internet, a “radically decentralized system” and a “network of peers, not a hierarchy.”

Wrong, says Andy, who has done lots of research on the development of standards for the Internet. “The evidence is pretty clear that the Arpanet and Internet were designed and built through a hierarchical process,” Andy writes. “In fact its hierarchy (and well-heeled sponsor, the Department of Defense) was the single factor most responsible for the Internet’s success: it kept at bay the factions unleashed by democracy in international standards committees.”

Steven Johnson no doubt welcomes this sort of criticism. This is exactly how peer networks are supposed to work. Johnson presents his vision of the future, Andy and I respond with our quibbles, others respond to us, we bicker, resolve our differences, agree to disagree, reach compromises, come up with new ideas and march bravely toward a more prosperous, peaceful future.

Illustration credit:


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sunspot 6:56 pm 10/9/2012

    Warfare is a little more than a caveat.
    1. When peer networks are confronted by a strong hierarchical (military) enemy that controls communications, the peer network folds unless they have an equally strong friend with free communications.
    2. The military can never answer to a true peer network. You can’t run a war by committee. The best they can do is to provide an intelligence network for the military.

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  2. 2. bestofnothing 9:29 pm 10/9/2012

    Sunspot: I like your insight. The author’s optimism for peer-networks blinds his view. And as if human peer-networks won’t organize into factions with unified interests and aggregate power. Peer-networks won’t maintain equality unless a greater force outside the network enforces equality.

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  3. 3. bongobimbo 10:35 am 10/10/2012

    Nice ideas, but nothing new to a historian and leftist political activist. Many other groups have formed to do the same–and so far, the internet has been a great help.

    But, please! FORGET using the Renaissance as an exemplar. Take ideas from the late Middle Ages, or the Enlightenment, or the Roman Republic in its middle years, or the Athenians in classical times–although all these eras had their own serious flaws. But never use the Renaissance as a shining light!

    Yes, it produced an occasional Montaigne and Erasmus, but more often a Machiavelli and Hobbes. Yes, the Reformation allowed the Medieval heresies to continue to exist as Anabaptists–”the Radical Reformation” in the words of historian George Huntston Williams–which tested and ultimately gave rise to practically every liberty, social service, and skeptical attitude we value, but that would have happened quicker without political repression. Yes, there was a steady improvement in scientific knowledge (except in medicine), technology and art, but that’s no surprise to most historians, considering the accomplishments in all these fields that began during the well-named 12th Century Renaissance and which never flagged even in the plague and violence of the 14th century. So the Renaissance hasn’t been entirely overrated. There were a few accomplishments.

    The big failures of the Renaissance were in politics and human rights. Machiavelli helped entrench the tyrannical and corrupt centuries of the Divine Right of Kings, and nearly all the large Medieval gains in representative government faltered, died, and the most urgent ones like impeachment, habeas corpus, citizen participation, parliaments, etc. had to begin to be rediscovered and resuscitated in the 17th and 18th c.–a struggle that continues to our time. The Renaissance was the era when international imperialism, slavery of people of color, and the first appearance of “racial” bigotry appeared, along with white European arrogance. The Pharaonic top-down ideology of the Renaissance and its privateer imperialism allowed the later Enlightenment to continue the rampant enclosures of common lands, the growth of capitalism–which led inevitably to wars between industrial nations over resources–and the sneaking growth of financial oligarchy that never was halted more than briefly, and which now controls the world. Think twice before lauding the Renaissance, or using its ideologies as goals for our time!

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