Monday, July 1, 2013

In favor of “peer progressives”: how, where, and why they’re good for TIMN (part 3 of 4)

This Part 3 picks up where Part 2 left off examining Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect (2012) — in particular, his concept of “peer progressives” since it helps flesh out the +N part of TIMN.

Again, here are the major areas where Johnson’s themes parallel and overlap with TIMN:
  • Network forms of organization are on the rise.
  • They and their proponents are altering all areas of society.
  • Hierarchy and market forms of organization will endure, though altered.
  • People will treat networks — not just governments or markets — as solutions.
  • New political philosophies and ideologies will emerge.
And here are areas where his observations and speculations fall short of TIMN:
  • TIMN implies that a new sector will grow around the network form. Johnson’s write-up does not detect this, though I suspect it would appeal to peer progressives.
  • TIMN offers a quadriform understanding of society and its future prospects. The view in Future Perfect remains triformist — though a kind of triformist-plus.
Of those seven bullets above, Part 1 emphasized the first three. Part 2 addressed the fourth and fifth. This Part 3 turns to the sixth.  Part 4 will deal with the seventh.

Part 1 was almost entirely laudatory about Johnson’s concept. Part 2 as well, but it began to hint at criticisms. This Part 3 is mostly critical, for it focuses on shortcomings vis à vis TIMN.

But my purpose is not just to show shortcomings vis à vis TIMN. It’s also to show that peer progressives would benefit TIMN (and dare I say, benefit from TIMN) much more if they ever turn into full-on quadriformists.

* * * * *

Strong as his book is, Johnson misses some matters that would help bolster his case. While he keys off Yochai Benkler’s work on peer production, Johnson does not seem to know about the work of the P2P Foundation and the writings of Michel Bauwens, not to mention other P2P proponents. Johnson also neglects John Keane’s writings about “monitory democracy,” not to mention other writings that emphasize civil society. Indeed, Johnson seems to draw on and associate with a rather select set of currently prominent thinkers. Nothing wrong with that — but it may help explain why he has not cast his net far out toward the edges of recent thinking about peer-to-peer dynamics and their implications.

Yet it’s not just a few other edgy thinkers that Johnson misses. From a TIMN perspective, the analysis of peer networks and peer progressivism would benefit from anticipating prospects for (a) the emergence of a new +N sector, and (b) future evolution from a triform (T+I+M) into a quadriform (T+I+M+N) society. I discuss both prospects — and their lapses in Future Perfect — in the ensuing sections, spread over Parts 3 and 4.

Toward a new +N sector

Johnson correctly identifies myriad places where peer networks are taking hold, having effects. But he does so without trying to discriminate whether government, business, or civil society is being affected the most. While it appears that everything is affected, Future Perfect focuses on business and government more than civil society — and if anything, the book emphasizes economics the most. In these tendencies, he has lots of company; many analysts are doing much the same these days. But even though it’s a common tendency in today’s world, TIMN leads me to doubt it’s the most advisable (as discussed here).

TIMN is much more determined to show that, even though the rise of a new form may affect all sectors, some sectors may be more affected than others, as may their relative power and influence. More than that, TIMN implies that the growth of a new form leads to the creation of a new sector around that form. As I’ve written before (e.g., here and here, sometimes using realm instead of sector), that’s what happened with the T, +I, and +M transitions; and TIMN proposes that it’ll happen again with spread of the +N form. If I read Johnson correctly, he has not detected that prospect — he stresses across-the-board effects, almost indiscriminately, and does so mostly in terms of the existing public and private sectors.

My observations and hypotheses about the creation of a new sector are scattered, and I’m not going to do much reiteration here. But as a reminder, a few key points seem pertinent: Since at least the 1990s a lot of theorists have remarked about the prospects for a new sector, and linked them (and it) to the spread of network forms of organization, strategy, and technology, especially among NGOs representing civil society. Peter Drucker named it the social sector — I still like that name — but others, each meaning something a bit different, have called it the third sector, citizen sector, civic sector, social-benefit sector, or commons sector. Whichever, it is likely to consist mostly of small agile non-profit organizations that pertain to civil society more than government or business, and that operate in networks with each other, as well as with traditional public- and private-sector actors. Indeed, one of the most interesting points made about this potential new (+N) sector is that it will be distinct from the established public (+I) and private (+M) sectors.

Against his background, I limit my focus here to just a few matters that peer progressivism is bound to have to take positions on in the future, according to TIMN: One is the role of civil society. The others are speculative possibilities: monitory democracy, and a commons sector.

Importance of civil society. Oddly, Future Perfect does not offer a single paragraph about civil society — a search via Amazon yields nary a mention — whereas there are pages and pages about government and business. Isn’t this a significant inexplicable shortcoming? An analytical imbalance?

In contrast, a new forward-looking conservative analysis by James Bennett and Michael Lotus, America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century — Why America's Greatest Days Are Yet to Come (2013), recognizes that:
“[A] revival of civil society appears to be in store. New technology, which allows people to connect in new ways, is likely to lead to a revival of civil society in new forms. We expect this process to continue and to evolve rapidly. What we now refer to as “social media” are only early and primitive versions of the civil society-enabling technology we will be seeing in the years ahead. Nonetheless it is too early to say exactly how, and how much, new technology will revive and strengthen civil society.” (p. 41; h/t The Scholar's Stage blog)
Future Perfect might easily have said something similar — and been the better for it, in terms of foreseeing what may turn out to be important to peer progressives. As an aside, I notice that the authors of America 3.0 do not link their point to Edmund Burke’s great concept about the value of “little platoons” in civil society. That could easily be fashioned into a peer-oriented concept in favor of 3.0 conservatism — one that’d be attractive to eclectic peer progressives as well.

Possibility of monitory democracy. Future Perfect expresses hopes for “liquid democracy” — an information-age way to improve representation from inside the political system. But John Keane’s concept of “monitory democracy” —a novel way for civil-society actors to affect democracy from outside the political system — looks more apropos from a TIMN perspective, and it’s not mentioned.

Monitory democracy is entirely consistent with Johnson’s points about peer networks and peer progressivism. As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, Keane grounds his concept on increases in monitoring roles played by NGOs and other actors representing civil society. As he states in his book The Life and Death of Democracy (2009):
“[T]he years since 1945 have seen the invention of about a hundred different types of power-monitoring devices that never before existed within the world of democracy. These watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions are changing both the political geography and the political dynamics of many democracies, which no longer bear much resemblance to textbook models of representative democracy, which supposed that citizens’ needs are best championed through elected parliamentary representatives chosen by political parties. From the perspective of this book, the emerging historical form of ‘monitory’ democracy is a ‘post-Westminster’ form of democracy in which power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments. These extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions include — to mention at random just a few — public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts’ reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, ‘blogging’ and other novel forms of media scrutiny.” (p. 14 here)
Keane makes clear that democracy’s proponents would be well-advised to start understanding and fostering monitory democracy. From a TIMN standpoint, I like Keane’s emphasis on civil society, for TIMN regards civil society as a growing source of monitory power vis à vis state and market actors. Also commendable is Keane’s point that monitory democracy brings new kinds of checks and balances; for TIMN is very much about each form being used in proper ways vis à vis the other forms — ways that would keep the forms and their realms basically separated, limited, balanced, and mutually regulated. Monitory democracy fits well with that.

Even so, Keane’s concept does not imply a distinct monitory sector, for a lot of monitoring will be done by actors in all sectors. Yet, he indicates that the prospects for monitory democracy may depend on people having “equal access to ‘the commons’” — a point germane to the next sub-section of this post. That too is far from his explicitly forecasting a new sector, much less calling for a commons sector. But developing what’s been called a “sensor commons” around peer networks of civil-society NGOs might well be in accordance with monitory democracy and peer progressivism, not to mention TIMN.

Monitoring will surely become a key function of a new +N sector. If Keane’s theorizing about monitory democracy is right (and if my theorizing about TIMN is too), then we are looking at a major area for the growth of peer networks and peer progressivism vis à vis civil society in the future.

Possibility of a commons sector. Nor does Future Perfect contain any reference to the idea of the commons. Elsewhere, it’s making a quiet but noticeable return, especially in regard to what are called the information commons and digital commons. And it’s doing so especially among progressives on the Left who look forward to developing a commons sector. They want it to be separate from the established public and private sectors, to grow to outweigh those sectors on commons-related issues, and to be based on P2P networks and associated principles about shared governance and stewardship.

As Jonathan Rowe once explained,
“It is significant, then, that an old term is reappearing to describe what is being threatened. It is "the commons," the realm of life that is distinct from both the market and the state and is the shared heritage of us all. Vandana Shiva, an Indian physicist and environmental activist, writes about the commons of water and seeds. Lawrence Lessig, an author and lawyer, describes the innovation commons of the Internet and the public domain of knowledge. Others are talking about the atmospheric commons, the commons of public squares, and the commons of quiet. …
“If advocates of the commons in its many forms were to embrace the concept as a defining theme, the result could be a new and potent political force.” (source)
While I’m not sure what to make of this unfolding prospect, I’ve learned enough (e.g., here and here) to see that it fits well not only with TIMN but also with what Future Perfect reports about peer progressivism. The book should have at least mentioned it. If it continues to hold promise and gain ground, peer networks and peer progressives seem likely engines.

Perhaps a reason it’s overlooked is Johnson’s affinity for libertarianism. Traditional libertarians are too dedicated to private property and ownership to favor the return of the commons. But Johnson is well aware of this, as noted in Part 1, and he observes that peer progressives are much more interested in sharing. Thus, why he does not pick up on the rising ferment around the concept of the commons is, for me at least, another shortcoming. Perhaps it seems too far to the Left for him. But the concept may well gain adherents across the political spectrum. (I’ve even tried suggesting that commoneers start experimenting with creating citizens chambers of commons. Isn’t that being somewhat peer-progressive?)

In short, Johnson’s book occasionally recognizes effects that bear on civil society, but his book does little with them and their potential implications. I’m not trying to criticize Future Perfect for missing a few examples, but rather for overlooking civil-society activities in a way that, from a TIMN standpoint, is tantamount to a theoretical lapse about matters that may prove crucial to his prognoses.


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