Saturday, July 6, 2013

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

This Part 4 picks up where Part 3 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, Part 1 in this series emphasized the first three, Part 2 the fourth and fifth, and Part 3 the sixth. This final Part 4 addresses the seventh.

Part 1 was laudatory about Future Perfect. Part 2 as well, but it hinted at criticisms. Part 3 was mostly critical, for it focused on shortcomings vis à vis TIMN. This Part 4 fields some final cautions and criticisms, but it also returns to offering praise.

Along the way, I discuss two recent articles that bear on Future Perfect and TIMN. One is by Max Borders on “Peer Progressivism vs. Network Libertarianism” in The Freeman (2012). The next is by Yochai Benkler on “Practical Anarchism: Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State” in Politics & Society (2013). Both are helpful for thinking about Future Perfect and TIMN — but for very different reasons.

* * * * *

Toward quadriform societies — getting all four forms right

TIMN was inspired by observing the recent rise of network (N) forms of organization: How they work differently from older tribal (T), hierarchical institutional (I), and market (M) forms. And how the whole thing may be assembled into a theory of social evolution that spans the ages, from monoform (T-centric), to biform (T+I), to triform (T+I+M), and next quadriform (T+I+M+N) societies. According to TIMN, the information-age network form is strengthening civil society more than state and market actors, and will lead to creation of a new sector that is different and separate from the existing public and private sectors. But more than that, TIMN is about the balancing and compounding of all four TIMN forms and their respective realms, in a preferred progression over time.

That explains my enthused interest in Future Perfect: Johnson’s ideas about the rise of peer networks and peer progressivism slide marvelously into place in TIMN as harbingers of the +N form.

But it’s not a perfect fit. TIMN is about all four cardinal forms of organization, each with its own distinctive attributes, and none of them easy to define and set boundaries around. In general, Johnson does very well at discussing three of the forms: hierarchies (I), markets (M), and networks (N), as I discussed earlier. However, he deviates from TIMN principles at two points: One is where he brings tribes (T) into his analysis, and verges on conflating tribes and networks. Another is where he appears to turn too expansive in a defense of networks against a libertarian who wants to exalt markets. I must object on both accounts and try to clarify for the sake of TIMN. TIMN is averse to conflations and exaltations regarding any and all forms; it implies keeping them all in balance.

Harking back to tribes. While Future Perfect is mostly about networks vis à vis hierarchies and markets (three of the four TIMN forms), Johnson finally brings in tribes — the first and forever form in the TIMN framework. Thus he notes (p. 208) that despite the association of peer networks with advanced technology,
“from a certain angle, they can be seen as a return to a much older tradition. The social architectures of the Paleolithic era — the human minds formative years — were much closer to peer networks than they were to states or corporations.”
Indeed, he says (p. 209), the egalitarian allure of ancient hunter-gatherer bands and societies
“may explain why so many people have been drawn to participate in peer networks, despite the lack of traditional monetary rewards. There is something in the collaborative, egalitarian structure of these systems that resonates with the human mind, an echo of our deep history as a species.”
Moreover, Johnson claims (p. 210) that, thanks to this revival of tribe-like networking in our postmodern era, people no longer have to accept living passively in a mass society ruled by vast government and corporate hierarchies. People can now begin to imagine and create new alternatives.

Quite so, I’d say — but not so much as to obviate the distinction between tribes and networks. At least Johnson does not fully equate networks with tribes. As I’ve posted before (e.g., here), tribes and networks share some qualities, but they are different TIMN forms.

According to TIMN, it may be natural for early proponents of a new form to exhibit a kin-like camaraderie — i.e., tribe-like sentiments and behaviors. That happened with the rise of the +I and +M forms. And it may turn out to be especially so for the +N network form, since it is more collaborative and egalitarian than the institutional and market forms. Even so, peer tribalists, if I may call them that, are not the same phenomenon as peer progressives — and this should become more evident as the network form matures and becomes professionalized in the decades ahead.

Johnson rightly observes that peer progressives relish diversity, and favor expanding the reach of their networks into others’ networks. In contrast, true tribalists relish exclusivity; they want to expand only their own tribe. Moreover, contrary to peer networks, tribes are normally quite paternalistic in their decision-making, trust only kin, and favor single-minded uniform consensus. That’s not the nature of peer progressivism. Peer-progressive networks that have tribal qualities may eventually need to de-tribalize in order to mature.

For example, consider the postures that occur around American gun-culture issues. The NRA’s adherents, even those who are into building networks, resemble peer tribalists more than peer progressives. (Here is an interesting network analysis of the gun-control debates.) Indeed, the most tribalized issues in America — the “culture war” issues — tend to be ones where peer progressives don’t figure.

By noticing that a little tribalism exists among peer progressives, Future Perfect parallels TIMN even further. I just want to caution against conflating the two forms: tribes and networks. It’s important to notice their interactions, and their affinities, as Johnson does. But they are different TIMN forms, despite occasional hybrids — networks aren’t a new species of tribes, and tribes have their own socio-cultural realm to configure.

Avoiding conflations and exaltations. The above ends my remarks about the book that are drawn from the book. But I have one more point to add, prompted by one of the few book reviews I read. And it’s a point somewhat like the one above, which advised against conflating tribes and networks. This one objects to conflating markets and networks, which Johnson verges on doing in reply to a review by Max Borders that advocates “network libertarianism” over peer progressivism.

The book review that stirred up the most attention, and controversy, was Evgeny Morozov’s in New Republic. He roundly criticized Johnson’s book for, among other matters, exaggerating that decentralized networks often outperform centralized hierarchies. But, from a TIMN standpoint, I saw little value or accuracy in Morozov’s criticisms. Besides, Johnson offered a balanced rebuttal about the continuing importance of both hierarchies and networks, of both centralized and decentralized ways of getting thing done. [UPDATE — September 11, 2013: Tom Slee offers a somewhat-interesting and harder-hitting (but rambling) review titled “Sixty-Two Things Wrong with “Future Perfect”” at his blog here.]

Instead, a review by Max Borders on “Peer Progressivism vs. Network Libertarianism” in The Freeman (2012) is more instructive for TIMN (h/t Dick O’Neill). This review offers another fight over which form is better, which can outperform which — but this time the fight is about markets vs. networks.

Border defends libertarianism from Johnson’s critique by advocating “network libertarianism.” In so doing, Borders reiterates libertarianism’s uniform emphasis on markets as the best way to foster self-organization without central authority. He claims that peer progressivism hides an old affinity for the state as found in classic progressivism. More than that, he claims that what’s good in Johnson’s concept is actually more about markets than networks — indeed, he claims, peer networks are a species of markets. Here’s an excerpt that shows this:
““Peer progressivism” seems to be built either on one big misunderstanding about markets, or one big philosophical difference about authority. … [B]y libertarian lights a collaborative peer network is a species of market. I claimed as much in a tweeted reply to Steven Johnson himself. In his response to me … Johnson wrote: "@maxborders I think it's the reverse: markets are peer networks, as I say in the book; but not all peer networks are markets."” (source)
Uh-oh: Borders not only exalts markets over networks; he subsumes peer networks under markets. In reply, Johnson doesn’t exalt networks over markets, but he does subsume some markets under peer networks. That’s all I have of Johnson’s reply, but it’s enough to indicate that they’re both running afoul of TIMN principles. I’ve not yet settled on exactly how best to define each TIMN form, but I am sure of this: Beware of imperial definitions of any form that lead to a colonization of other forms.

In Future Perfect, Johnson normally views networks — peer networks, at least — as a distinct and bounded form of organization, different from hierarchies and markets (and maybe tribes too, if he were more aware of them). But in this remark he slips toward a very broad view of networks that has gained sway in recent decades — the view from social network analysis and network science that sees all forms of interaction as networks. If system of interactions can be viewed as nodes that have ties, then it’s a network. In this view, all TIMN forms are just different types of networks; the network is the mother and master of all forms.

I understand the logic behind this view. It’s legitimate, scientific, insightful, and on the rise. But it’s created difficulties for my articulation of TIMN, because its bounded networks are not the same as their generalized networks, as I’ve discussed before. TIMN might be better served if another network-oriented term ever emerges to identify what TIMN is after.

Even so, Johnson’s definitional stance here does not strike me as a grievous violation of TIMN principles; he’s just slipping a bit between the two views of networks, while still sustaining a bounded view that is consistent with TIMN. It’s what Borders goes on to assert that provides the more cautionary tale. He exalts the market form, and folds peer networks under it, by using a grand definition of markets that I’ve not seen before. In his words,
“… What Johnson may not realize, however, is that we libertarian types have quite a liberal definition of markets. Indeed, most of us would define a market as any system in which a participant in said system can pursue some value through voluntary interaction. … [W]e are more interested in the voluntary nature of interaction and not whether the interactions are transactional per se. We have come use the term "markets" in contrast to "mandates."
“… To us, markets are big enough to include peer networks because the latter are also just systems of value creation. These peer networks are libertarian to the extent that joining is voluntary and exiting is fairly low cost. …” (italics in original)
Yes, many discussions about networks do emphasize value creation, and many markets lead to value creation as well. But that definition is so brief and expansive, omitting so much that is normally included in a definition of markets, that I sense it could engulf not only networks but also tribes and hierarchies too — for their members often have occasion to “pursue some value through voluntary interaction” despite having kinship or authority constraints around them. Thus, such a definition of markets is too monoformist for TIMN. By suborning other forms to markets, his definition would obviate TIMN as well as Future Perfect.

Borders is back on track when he says that “peer progressives and network libertarians agree about one thing: most government is too powerful and many corporations are too powerful.” My view of TIMN aligns with that too. But that doesn’t offset the conceptual muddle that his definition of markets starts to create.

Balancing all forms. Fast on track with Future Perfect and TIMN is recent research by one of Johnson’s key inspirations and sources: Yochai Benkler. His new article, “Practical Anarchism: Peer Mutualism, Market Power, and the Fallible State,” in Politics & Society (2013) reports on the performance of various cases of “peer mutualism” (a rewording of his original phrase “commons-based peer production” that is akin to Johnson’s peer networks). It’s about efforts to organize solutions outside of state and market frameworks. A key question he addresses, then, is
“[D]o mutualistic associations offer enough of a solution space, to provisioning a sufficient range of the capabilities we require for human flourishing, to provide a meaningful alternative model to the state and the market across a significant range of human needs and activities?” (p.215)
His most successful cases include NGOs (esp. the IETF) that keep the Internet going, the Free and Open Software (FOSS) movement, and Wikipedia. And he reports approvingly that,
“They have fostered a broader, more general understanding that commons-based peer production, or distributed, voluntaristic, nonstate, nonmarket action provide a solution space for alternative models of approaching a wide range of social tasks.” (p. 230)
He commends other cases as well, including Kickstarter and Ushahidi, but turns critical about a case that depends heavily on government cooperation: the “Open Data” (aka Gov 2.0) initiative of the Obama administration. Thus,
“In combination, the open data and Wikileaks stories suggest a degree of caution about the potential and limits of anarchic, mutualistic solutions to core limitations of corporate or government power. States and companies, increasingly working together in a public-private partnership to retain dominance, can both subvert openness agendas and mount very effective combined assaults on anarchic models that severely constrain the effectiveness of the latter.” (p. 240)
Yet, overall, he finds that
Decentralized, commons-based, peer production systems offer a degree of freedom: a set of affordances and design interventions that allow certain public goods to be provisioned in ways that allow for new forms of bobbing and weaving between the constraints of the state and the market, but also the constraints of more traditional forms of social organization like the church, the union, or the neighborhood association. The point is not that these new models of organization are the apotheosis of free human association. We will almost certainly come to find out, if we do not already know, that these too are, or will become, imperfect; that these too have the potential to create, transmit, deploy, and abuse power. The point is that they provide a new degree of freedom in the design of human systems, …” (p.247)
Benkler’s view of peer mutualism is in keeping with Future Perfect and TIMN. He displays a realistic pragmatic sense of what peer mutualism may accomplish — he does not exalt the network form — and he recognizes that state and market forms will persist. Thus, while wary of “illegitimate capture by a cabal or to subversion by market or state actors” (pp. 245-246), he steadfastly argues that “Introducing peer production and mutualism is then aimed at improving and completing the imperfection of these systems, rather than replacing them” (p. 245). In a passing comment (p. 245), he even expresses hopes that healthcare and education will become new frontiers for peer mutualism — another implication that coincides with my past +N speculations.

Wrap-up comment: Future Perfect — between triformism and quadriformism

Parts 3 and 4 highlighted criticisms, and this final Part 4 has also drifted from focusing directly on Johnson’s Future Perfect. So, to close, I’d like to reiterate that, from a TIMN perspective, I remain very pleased with the book, and particularly its cardinal contribution: the concept of peer progressivism. It represents a solid step toward comprehending what +N may bring in the decades ahead. A mash-up of Benkler’s and Johnson’s concepts — commons-based peer progressivism — might prove extra-interesting.

Even so, Future Perfect does not offer a fully quadriformist vision. In line with TIMN, it does observe the rise of a new form of organization: peer networks. And it sees them as modifying if not transforming all areas of society — economic, political, social, cultural, etc. But it does not go far enough to detect the emergence of a new sector around the network form. Thus Future Perfect remains largely triformist — but it’s a kind of triformism-plus, and for that I’m full of praise. I’ll hope Johnson can do a revised expanded edition in a few years.

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