Tuesday, June 25, 2013

In favor of “peer progressives”: how, where, and why they’re good for TIMN (part 2 of 4)

This Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off, examining Steven Johnson’s new book Future Perfect (2012) and its parallels to TIMN — in particular, his concept of “peer progressives” because it helps flesh out the +N network 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. This Part 2, after providing some elaborations that reflect those three, eventually covers the next two. Part 3 will turn to the sixth, Part 4 the seventh.

* * * * *

Peer progressives in action — all over the map

Johnson recognizes that the rise of the network form had spectacular expression in a series of political and social movements since the 1990s. Indeed (p. 48), “To date, the most prominent examples of network architectures influencing real-world change have been the decentralized protest movements that emerged over the past few years: MoveOn, Arab Spring, the Spanish revolution, Occupy Wall Street.” While Johnson’s book doesn’t mention TIMN (and why should it), the parallels are so close that in one spot it even reads like a paraphrase of our (Arquilla & Ronfeldt) earlier work on information-age conflict (as clarified here and in Appendix B here). That’s when Johnson quotes (p. 106) from his book Emergence (2001), saying about the anti-WTO Battle-of-Seattle protests in 1999, “that there can be power and intelligence in a swarm, and if you were trying to do battle against a distributed network like global capitalism, you're better off becoming a distributed network yourself.”

But those movements involved so many ideological and other tendencies that none offers a seminal expression of peer progressivism. The movement that finally did so was the one in 2012 to block a congressional bill known as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). As Johnson puts it, “SOPA marked the single largest attack to date on the core principles of the Baran Web” by the established proponents of top-down Legrand Stars — the federal government and largest media corporations (p. 200). Indeed, “the SOPA rebellion made manifest the power of peer networks as a form of Digital Age activism” (p. 201). It helped that believing in peer networks was not a key value for either the Democratic or Republican political party — making it easier for a bipartisan consensus to form against SOPA, since neither party needed to claim it as its own victory (p. 203). As a result (p. 204), “The protests made perfect sense: they were the first great awakening of the peer-progressive movement.”

Yet, as Johnson wisely notes (pp. 48-49), “these grand spectacles … have turned out to be something of a distraction, averting our eyes from the more concrete and practical successes of peer networks.” The meat of his book is thus about problem-solving enterprises that have arisen because of the network form. Favorites include Wikipedia, Kickstarter, New York City’s 311 phone system, and ProPublica. Some are in the private sector, others the public sector; they arise in business, government, and civil society. Some are for-profit, others non-profit; some run by public employees, others by private enterprise. His point, much like TIMN, is that the peer network “is a practical, living, evolving reality, one that is already transforming dozens of different sectors.” (p. 52)

He admires New York’s 311 system at length (esp. pp. 63-66), for such peer-based solutions enable people to call attention to public problems. He’s also careful to discuss that it’s not a pure peer network, for the network has a headquarters. But it’s still more bottom-up than top-down — a hybrid of hierarchy and network that lets people share and pool information. Johnson speculates insightfully (pp. 72-73) that combining 311-like systems to identify problems with Kickstarter-like systems to solve them, plus introducing prize-backed challenges to attract participation in some situations, might go far to improve upon current ways of addressing civic problems in our communities.

Looking ahead from a peer-progressive perspective, Johnson anticipates major shifts in our political and economic systems. As for politics, peer progressives welcome transitioning away from the old Legrand-Star model of the state and its penchant for central planning; for they are ambivalent about hierarchical institutions. This includes representative democracies that are supposed to be bottom-up but have become quite centralized and top-heavy, and that let power be concentrated around ever smaller and less diverse groups. Indeed, he says, peer progressives tend to be Madisonian in their concerns that modern-day tyrannical nobles are gaining sway in our public and private sectors (pp. 155-157). Thus Johnson, like others, expresses hopes for the spread of “liquid democracy” and “participatory budgeting” as ways of expanding “the space of civic participation” at local and broader levels (p. 175).

As to future economic change, he draws mainly on the concept of “conscious capitalism” and the prospects it offers for making corporations run more like peer networks than fiefdoms:
“Conscious capitalism is what happens when peer-progressive values are applied to corporate structures.” (p. 182)
“The beauty of the peer-progressive approach to corporate organization is that it addresses many of the prevailing critiques of modern capitalism.” (p. 183)
What he likes is that conscious capitalism is about stakeholders more than shareholders, seeks out diverse sources of information, and encourages wide distribution of profits (pp. 178-180). He also commends that all the above is embodied in a new generation of employee-owned businesses, some of which operate as non-profit cooperatives (p. 187). Nonetheless, his optimism is tempered by wondering whether capitalism will really be transformed by learning to apply the lessons of peer networks to the social architecture of corporations (p. 195).

Johnson also discusses applying peer-progressivism to schools and their incentive structures. He thinks both teachers unions and libertarians — i.e., the agents of hierarchy and market methods — have faulty solutions in mind. Outcomes would be better if schools could be run like peer networks (pp. 191-190).

Thus, his array of examples shows that peer networks are taking hold all over the map, in all sectors of society: government, business, civil society. And that is principally what we wants to show. Moreover, by now, perhaps a year since he finished the book, lots of new examples could be added that seem eminently peer-progressive. For example, I’d suggest adding Code for America (CFA), the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), and NGOs promoting “networked humanitarianism” (such as iRevolution and ReliefWeb). Meanwhile at his blog, Johnson is keen about pro-peer-network research at NYU’s Governance Lab (GovLab). And just today, thanks to the PBS Newshour, I learned that Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s The Metropolitan Revolution (2013) reports on how numerous coalitional networks of city and metropolitan leaders from diverse sectors — and they sure sound like peer networks, including conservatives as well as progressives — are stepping up in innovative ways to fix political, economic. and other problems while federal and state governments pull back.

All this parallels TIMN, which holds that established activities and enterprises in all sectors will be modified by the rise of a new form, currently meaning the network (+N) form. But from a TIMN perspective, more is going on than across-the-board modifications and transformations in existing sectors. TIMN also implies the creation of a brand new sector.

But before turning to that, I’d rather focus first, and briefly, on a couple of points that extend from the preceding discussion about wide-ranging changes:
  • People will treat networks — not just governments or markets — as solutions.
  • New political philosophies and ideologies will emerge.
My findings about TIMN and Johnson’s findings about peer progressivism are largely in agreement on those two points.

Networks as solutions

TIMN has long maintained that, beyond today’s common claims that government or market is the solution, we are entering a new era in which it will be said that the network is the solution (e.g., here and here). Aging contentions that turning to “the government” or “the market” is the way to address particular public-policy issues will eventually give way to innovative ideas that “the network” is the optimal solution.

Johnson shows that peer progressivism says much the same — indeed, it’s one of his key themes:
Slowly but steadily, much like the creation of the Internet itself, a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that govern the design of the net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems — the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools. You can see in all these efforts the emergence of a new political philosophy, as different from the state-centralized solutions of the old Left as it is from the libertarian market religion of the Right. The people behind these movements believe in government intervention without Legrand Stars, in Hayek-style distributed information without traditional marketplaces. (p. 19)
“To be a peer progressive, then, is to believe that the key to continued progress lies in building peer networks in as many regions of modern life as possible: in education, healthcare, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies. When a need arises in society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem.” (p. 50)
This prospect amounts to a significant overlap with TIMN. I’ve tried to indicate elsewhere that it may develop in the context of the rise of “cyberocracy” and a “nexus state” in the future, but I’ll leave discussing that for another day, possibly in Part 3.

Toward new political ideologies and philosophies

According to TIMN (initially, 1996, pp. 30-33), as the network (+N) form takes hold, new political ideologies and philosophies will take shape around it. They will be network-oriented rather than tribe-, state-, or market-oriented, and they will arise across the political spectrum: Right, Left, and Center.

Johnson’s write-up shows agreement with this prospect, at least for the Center and Left parts of the spectrum — that’s what peer progressivism means. Here are a few apropos quotes:
“The fact that the peer network does not fit easily into traditional political categories of the Left and Right should not be mistaken for some kind of squishy, “third way” centrism. It is not the moderates attempt to use Big Government and Big Labor to counterbalance the excesses of Big Corporations. Living strictly by peer-progressive values means rethinking the fundamental structures of some of the most revered institutions of modern life; it means going back to the drawing board to think about how private companies and democracies are structured. It is … not a matter of finding a middle ground between Left and Right, but rather finding a way forward. This is why it is so important that these principles not be confused with simple internet utopianism. (p. 51)
In the following passage he tries to specify the kind of political agenda that peer progressives are disposed to have:
“But think about the specific values that we have seen associated with the peer-progressive worldview. Peer progressives are wary of excessive top-down government control in bureaucracy; they want more civic participation and accountability in public-sector issues that affect their communities. They want more choice and experimentation in public schools; they think, on the whole, that the teachers unions have been a hindrance to educational innovation. They think markets can be a great force for innovation and rising standards of living, but they also think corporations are far too powerful and top-heavy in their social architecture. They believe the rising wealth and income gaps need to be restored to levels closer to those of the 1950s. They believe that the campaign financing system is poisoning democracy, but want to retain an individual’s right to support candidates directly. They want lower prices for prescription drugs without threatening the innovation engine of the pharmaceutical industry. They are socially libertarian, and consider diversity to be a key cultural value. They believe the decentralized, peer-to-peer architecture of the Internet has been a force for good, and that governments (or corporations) shouldn't mess with it.” (pp. 205-206)
Johnson says that this set of values and positions may look like a mishmash, drawn partly from one political party and partly the other. Yet there is a coherent logic behind them:
“[T]hrough the lens of peer progressivism, they all come into focus, because the values flow directly from a core set of beliefs about the power and effectiveness of peer networks, in both the private and public sectors. The number of individuals and groups that are actively building new peer-progressive organizations is still small, but the values associated with the movement are shared much more widely throughout the population.” (p. 206)
In rather odd few paragraphs, Johnson mentions Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, and unspecified persons in the Obama administration, as people who have done much to foster peer-network experimentation in political circles (p. 207). I understand his point — it’s a good one — but I wish he’d said more, and identified more than just those mentions.

In any case, by pointing out that networks are increasingly seen as solutions and that new political philosophies and ideologies will take shape around the network form, he goes a long way to proposing that peer progressivism is about far more than reformist modifications all across the board — it means that something distinctly radically new is dawning.

If I ever get back to doing Part 3 of my unfinished series of posts on “TIMN: some implications for thinking about political philosophy and ideology” (beginning here), I’ll be able to say a lot more now than a year ago, thanks to Johnson’s adding peer progressivism to the lexicon for thinking ahead. Indeed, peer progressivism could do a lot for our country in the future. A conservative variety too, if it would just show up (and I’d suppose it should have a name other than peer conservatism). Possible alternatives — e.g., “network libertarianism” — would not be nearly as constructive from a TIMN perspective, as I’ll discuss in Part 4 of this series on Future Perfect.

Over the past 10 to 20 years there have been lots of comparisons of America to the fall of Rome. But TIMN points to a huge crucial difference between the two cases. Yes, they both involve the decay of hierarchical institutions. And both also involve a resurgence of tribalism, domestically and around the periphery. But only one of the two cases — America — appears to be declining in an era when a new form of organization is emerging: the +N form. And that can make a decisive difference, meaning America can renew itself whereas Rome could not. From a TIMN perspective, I'd like to think that is part of the promise of peer networks and peer progressivism.


Friday, June 21, 2013

In favor of “peer progressives”: how, where, and why they’re good for TIMN (part 1 of 4)

[UPDATE — July 1, 2013: Edited to note that this post is now appearing in 4 parts.]

[UPDATE — June 25, 2013:  Edited to note that this post is now appearing in 3 parts, not 2.]

A colleague recommended reading Steven Johnson’s new book Future Perfect (2012) because, he said, it is a lot like TIMN (h/t Dick O’Neill, Highlands Forum). And indeed it is. This post is about Johnson’s concept of “peer progressives” being consistent with TIMN, particularly the +N network part. His book shows that TIMN-like views are spreading better than I knew.

Indeed, I recommend that readers interested in TIMN who don’t cotton to my acronymic short-hand lingo go read Johnson’s plain-English book. It’s good for the long-range cause of TIMN-type thinking — despite shortcomings I’ll mention.

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.
But there are some 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 future 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.
This post discusses all that. Until now, the writings that parallel TIMN the most have been those of Michel Bauwens and others associated with P2P theory. Compared to each other, Bauwens is well to the Left; and Johnson seems to be moderately left-of-center, a liberal centrist. This pleases me, since TIMN depends on its kinds of notions spreading across the political spectrum. I’m still waiting for a comparable voice on the Right, but so far its voices don’t seem to “get” the network form to a great extent.

Apology to readers: This post is long and repetitive — becoming so much so in the course of drafting that I'm posting it in four separate parts. But my purpose isn’t so much to offer a readable review, as to compose a repository for my notes from the book, in part because I’m not sure what I might want to use anew in the future. For me, better to stash too much here now, than to have to go back and peruse the book again later.

* * * * *

Emergence of peer progressives

As in the case of TIMN (e.g., here and here), Johnson’s departure point is the rise of network forms of organization made possible by the new information technologies. By now, of course, that is the departure point for myriad writings about the information age. What’s singular about Johnson’s analysis is his focus on “peer networks” propelled by “peer progressives” — the latter term being his major contribution.

I and many other analysts have long wondered about the prospects for peer-to-peer networks in all areas of society. But to my knowledge this is the first time that someone has coined an attractive apt name for actors who believe in network forms of organization, strategy, and technology, and who also operate according to positive social values that amount to a new philosophical or ideological orientation. As Johnson explains in a recent post at his blog about the book,
“I wrote Future Perfect in large part to capture all the thrilling new experiments and research into peer collaboration that I saw flourishing all around me, and to give those diverse projects the umbrella name of peer progressivism so that they could be more easily conceived as a unified movement. But I also wrote the book with the explicit assumption that we had a lot to learn about these systems.” (source)
Here’s a string of quotations from the book that show Johnson’s take on the concept of peer progressives — who they are, what they believe:
“As I spent more time watching and thinking about this emerging movement, I began to realize that its political values did not readily map onto existing political categories. The people who most interested me were wary of centralized control, but they were not free-market libertarians. They believed in the power of competition, but they also believed that some of society’s most important achievements could not be incentivized with economic reward. They called themselves entrepreneurs but worked mostly in the public sector. They were equally suspicious of big government and big corporations.” (pp. xxxv-xxxvi)
“We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.” (p. 20)
“The peer progressive believes that the social architecture of the distributed network is fundamentally a force for good in the world, on the order of other related institutions, such as democracies or marketplaces. And the peer progressive believes that the Internet has been the dominant role model and breeding ground for peer networks over the past decade or two.” (p. 110-111)
“After all, peer progressives have a very clear set of values that draw upon the older tradition of progressive politics. They believe in equality, participation, diversity. There's nothing laissez-faire about their agenda for progress. They take the social architecture of the peer network and direct it toward problems that markets have failed to solve.” (pp. 113-114)
“To be a peer progressive, then, is to live with the conviction that Wikipedia is just the beginning, that we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, government, health, social communities, and countless other regions of human experience. … That is a future worth looking forward to. Now is the time to invent it.” (pp. 213-214)
In other words, peer progressivism is as much about network-oriented values as it is about organization and technology. It’s also about how values, organization, and technology all fit together. For peer progressives favor peer networks because such networks embody values that best suit such a form of organization: diversity, equality, freedom, democracy, sharing, pooling, openness, and collaboration along with competition. All this starts to fill in what Arquilla and I saw as the “narrative level” that networks require to function well (according to our Networks and Netwars volume, 2001, Ch. 10).

The value that comes up the most is diversity. Peer progressives value diversity so highly because seeking diverse inputs should assure smarter, more flexible, innovative thinking:
“The problem-solving capacity that comes from diverse networks is one of the cornerstones of the peer progressive worldview.” (p. 98)
“One of the key values of peer progressivism is intellectual and professional diversity; groups that draw on different conceptual frameworks consistently outperform more single-minded groups.” (source)
According to Johnson, peer progressivism is very future-oriented and will grow to become a unified philosophy that is new and original. It’s still nascent and inchoate, but it’s gaining enough impetus in enough places that it will eventually turn into a wave (p. xxxvii).

In all these regards, Johnson’s observations overlap nicely with TIMN and its implications for the emergence of the +N part. The concept of peer progressivism adds a new kind of focus for +N that I’ve been hoping to see crop up eventually somewhere.

Related concepts: networked individualism and cooperative individualism

Johnson wondered about other trendy terms for what he was observing (e.g., “net utopians” and “netarians”). But none seemed correct, so he coined and settled on “peer progressives.” Yet his term bears some relation to another recent term that he doesn’t mention: “networked individualism,” and its cognate “cooperative individualism.” Neither of the two is as apt as his term, but they help illuminate points that are embedded in his term yet not as fully laid out.

The first is from sociologist Barry Wellman, a scholar of social network analysis. His point is that Americans are “moving from a society bound up in little boxes to a multiple network – and networking – society” (source). I gather his is not meant to be a political concept, though it has some political implications. (For more, see his co-authored book here, as well as Clay Spinuzzi’s review here.)

The second comes from activist David Bollier, an advocate of commons perspectives. Bollier’s concerns are eminently political, yet based on a forward-looking theoretical insight. It is that advocating for the commons
“asks us to transcend some of the familiar dichotomies of modern life – “public” vs. “private,” “individual” vs. “collective,” “objective” vs. “subjective” – and to begin to see these dualisms in a more integrated, blended form. “Cooperative individualism” is one shorthand that I like to use.” (source)
What they and fellow analysts seek — even more than Johnson — are terms that bridge and balance between individualism and collectivism, as well as between competition and collaboration, in ways attuned to the rise of network forms of organization. Kevin Carson, a P2P market anarchist, has added (here) that “stigmergic organization” is crucial, for stigmergy means interactive inputs by individuals that help coordinate and modify the whole: “So stigmergy is the highest realization of both individualism and collectivism, without either diminishing or qualifying the other in any way.” Good point — though the term does not seem suited to common parlance.

Also, while Johnson says his term reflects aspects of libertarianism and anarchism along with progressivism, he says little about two other isms that have long figured in discussions about progressive information-age actors: communitarianism, and more so, cosmopolitanism. Some peer progressives seem in tune with those isms as well. But little matter — Johnson’s term resonates the best, in my view.

Peer networks vis à vis (and versus) hierarchies and markets

Like TIMN — not to mention many other frameworks (source) — Johnson analyzes the rise of network forms of organization on their own merits and in relation to the two most established forms: hierarchies and markets. He is sensibly insightful regarding the evolving nature of all three forms.

As Johnson says (p. 194), “The conviction that peer networks can be a transformative force for good in the world is perhaps the core belief of the peer-progressive worldview.” And by “peer networks” he means much the same as what others (myself included) have meant by all-channel, peer-to-peer, full-mesh, rhizomatic, and/or distributed networks — not just any networks, but dense networks of fully interconnected peers, allowing for diverse values and views to be expressed, sorted, pooled, and processed.

To depict his point, he draws (p. 12) on a classic RAND publication by Paul Baran, the “father of the Internet,” that contrasts three network designs: centralized (single-hub, hierarchical), decentralized (multi-hub, heterarchical), and distributed (so decentralized and all-channel that no hubs appear). In a metaphor that runs throughout the book, then, Johnson associates the first design with hierarchy, calling it the “Legrand Star” after a misguided late-19th century French design for its state-run railroad system. And he associates the third design with peer networks, calling it the “Baran Web” since it corresponds to Baran’s original design for the Internet. Thus, much of the book is about areas of society where traditional hierarchies — Legrand Stars — are being outperformed and/or superseded by peer networks: Baran Webs.

In my TIMN view, that’s a good highly-readable metaphor for contrasting hierarchies and networks. But it’s also a bit misleading: Not all hierarchical institutions reduce solely to the Legrand-Star design; many today are closer to the decentralized design, for which he does not offer a metaphor. Moreover, many valuable types of networks don’t quite correspond to the Baran-Web design. Peer networks are very important, but it’s not yet clear which network designs will prevail where in the future. Even so, his theme is engaging, and his treatment is nuanced-enough to mitigate my quibbling.

In general, then, Johnson sees — and by implication, peer progressives see — that many large institutions are failing, and “being replaced by interlinked networks of smaller, more nimble units” (p.24). Indeed, according to a remark about the media landscape that applies to other areas,
“the simplest way to understand what has happened over that period is this: the overarching system of news is transitioning from a Legrand Star to a Baran Web, from a small set of hierarchical organizations to a distributed network of smaller and more diverse entities.” (p. 79)
Yet, much as peer progressives are disillusioned with “the older models of Big Capital or Big Government” (p. xxxvii), Johnson has carefully noted (here) that “we need to avoid the easy assumption that decentralized, peer-based approaches will always outperform centralized ones.” He is quite aware that pragmatic hybrid designs may be required in some areas, combining mixtures of bottom-up and top-down dynamics.

As for the other form in his triad — markets — they are not designated with a stand-out visual metaphor, but the book is as much about networks vis à vis markets as it is about hierarchies. Johnson finds particularly strong affinities between peer progressives and market libertarians, for he says (p, 28), with a nod to Friedrich Hayek, that
“True markets display almost all of the core principles of the peer-progressive worldview. ... To be a peer progressive is to believe in the power of markets.”
Yet, he clarifies (p. 29), peer progressives don’t have entirely the same views about markets as traditional libertarians. Peer progressives are as keen about individualism, but without being as anti-state. For peer progressives believe that states can be crucial for enabling and protecting individualism.

Moreover, peer progressivism does not claim that markets can provide answers to all needs and problems; where market failures arise, it prefers to look for network solutions instead:
“Instead of turning a blind eye to market failures, it assumes that these problems are widespread, and actively seeks them out as the central focus of its agenda. Instead of building a large government agency to combat the problem, it tries to build a peer network around it, a system of dense, diverse, and decentralized exchange.” (p. 30)
Furthermore, peer progressives have values that are at odds with standard libertarianism about private property, ownership, and motivation (pp. 129-131). Peer progressives prefer to keep ideas circulating, without worrying so much about ownership. That’s “because the open exchange of ideas is a core attribute of all peer networks” — peer progressives want to reward people not only for coming up with good ideas but also for sharing them (p. 131). In a way, then, the more a peer-network enterprise — e.g., Kickstarter, Wikipedia — operates like a gift economy, the better (p. 45-46). Financial rewards are not the paramount incentives. That’s partly why such enterprises are able to address and solve problems that markets previously fumbled. Johnson is particularly keen to note cases where “a diverse network working outside the marketplace establishes a worthy goal, and an even more diverse network sets out to find a way to reach it” (p. 149).

In short, even as peer progressives extol the virtues of peer networks, they still see virtues in preserving hierarchies and markets as ways of making societies function well. They tend to be more critical of hierarchies than markets, but they recognize that well-functioning societies require balanced combinations of all three forms of organization. All of which substantiates that Johnson’s points parallel and overlap with TIMN.