Future Perfect — the case for peer progressivism

I’ve never been quite sure which political box I fit into. When I was younger I tried being a member of various political parties but nothing was quite right even though I was interested in political issues. As time went on I came to realise that it was partly the way that political parties were structured that was the problem. They were too slow and top-down and debates about policy didn’t resonate with me — they seemed abstracted from any evidence or real idea about what the future should be like.

As I got a bit older I realised there were plenty of other people who thought in a similar way to me and who had become disillusioned with the main parties. We took our inspiration from self-organisation rather than old political labels. We were relentlessly practical and entrepreneurial rather than sitting around talking about policy.

Now Steven Johnson has written a book that gives our politics a name. I can say that I’m a peer progressive. ‘Peer’ because my first instinct is to look for the peer-to-peer solution rather than the top-down government or corporate solution. ‘Progressive’ because I believe in making the world a better place rather than resting on tradition.

On Monday I went to along to see Steven talk about the book in San Francisco having read it on the plane over. It’s a book that Steven says he began thinking about when writing Emergence in 2000 when he noticed that all the network patterns he wrote about in terms of ants, brains, cities and software were also present in the way that the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 were organised.

Steven was interviewed by Bill Wasik of Wired magazine who put it pretty well when he said it’s a pre-manifesto for a future politics — one that doesn’t quite exist yet. I’d agree with that, but I think when the shift from the big parties happens, it will happen quickly. I have a sneaking suspicion that the UK might be the most likely place for it to happen because our political parties are financial and organisational shadows of their former selves, unlike the US where they have huge financial muscle behind them.

I have a bet with a few Demos friends that the next UK election (in 2015) will be won by a party that didn’t exist before the 2010 election. I still stand by that. I think the innovation will be in process not policy and it may look nothing like our current parties. Although it wasn’t part of the bet, I’d add that technology will play a major part. The weak signals are in the Pirate Party’s LiquidFeedback system which, while a bit geeky at the moment, is along the right lines. I also think that Clay Shirky is onto something when he talks about Github as an innovation that could spread to democracy.

There are issues we’ll need to face though. Steven doesn’t really go into some of the theory of social networks that shows they develop an underlying structure that can lead to inequality of resources and influence — it’s even known as the rich-get-richer effect by network theorists. As peer progressive politics develops we’ll need to understand the dark side of networks much better.

But if you find yourself frustrated with our current politics then read Future Perfect. It’s intensely optimistic about the future but by showing just how much progress we’ve made over the last 20–30 years you come away thinking that it might be realistic too. We don’t live in a peer progressive world yet, but it might come sooner than you think.

Image by Riverhead Books.
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