In early 2012, a musician named Amanda Palmer took to Kickstarter to ask her fans for $100,000. Palmer, a veteran of the major-label system, was raising money to independently release her new album. “since [sic] i’m now without a giant label to front the gazillions of dollars that it always takes to manufacture and promote a record this big, I’m coming to you to gather funds so that i [sic] have the capital to put it out with a huge fucking bang,” she wrote in her pitch.
Bang. By the end of the Kickstarter campaign, Palmer had raised $1.2 million, about a third of it in donations of $100 or less, and, in effect, validated a new model of funding the arts. “THIS IS THE FUTURE OF MUSIC,” Palmer asserted in a video promoting her fundraising effort. And who would disagree? As Steven Johnson puts it in his new book, Future Perfect, sites like Kickstarter help germinate passion projects that legacy studio systems wouldn’t touch. With Kickstarter, he writes, “interesting, provocative, polished, ambitious ideas get funding; boring or trivial or spammy ones don’t.”
Interesting, provocative, polished ideas, and better strategies for encouraging them, are Johnson’s subject matter in Future Perfect, a preternaturally optimistic manifesto arguing that the modern world is pretty great, and that peer networks are making it even better. Johnson is a tech journalist, entrepreneur, and prolific author who over the last 15 years has written eight books, all of the big-idea variety. His latest is an attempt to articulate the values of peer progressivism, a vaguely libertarian ideology apparently born out of TED conferences, Twitter chats, and creative-class dinner parties. “Hooray for crowdsourcing” is the gist of it. “We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network,” he writes. “We are peer progressives.”
Johnson and the peer progressives see the Internet not just as a triumph of network architecture, but a milestone in political philosophy, a response to ineffective statist strategies for organizing systems and wielding power. Governments and other large organizations tend to rely on small, centralized groups of “idea men,” who are often out of touch with their constituents; take the high-rise housing projects of the 1960s, for instance, conceived by central planners with little apparent consideration of how these towers might ultimately suit their communities.
Peer progressive strategies, on the other hand, encourage group input and participation from the margins. A peer-progressive housing strategy, for example, might ask community members to guide the redevelopment process. The idea has applications everywhere. As Johnson explains it, “a growing number of us have started to think that the core principles that governed the design of the Net could be applied to solve different kinds of problems—the problems that confront neighborhoods, artists, drug companies, parents, schools.”
If you’ve ever used Twitter or attended a future-of-news conference, you will recognize the peer progressives. They are enthusiastic anecdotalists and soothsayers who are often blind to the ultimate implications of their advice. Johnson eschews the “utopian” label, but he isn’t convincing. As he describes it, peer progressivism necessitates unshakable faith in the impending arrival of the best of all possible worlds.
But is that faith justified? It is tempting to criticize Johnson on the fact that most of the advances and breakthroughs he cites aren’t particularly substantial. (He really loves Kickstarter, and the white-people art projects in which it specializes.) Johnson, though, acknowledges that peer progressivism is young, and hasn’t yet produced much of widespread value. It’s not the product that matters; it’s the process.
“When a need arises in society that goes unmet, our first impulse should be to build a peer network that solves that problem, ” writes Johnson, and he’s full of ideas to that end. Why not remake the National Endowment for the Arts on a Kickstarter model? Or let uninformed voters assign their votes to better-informed proxies? Wouldn’t it be great if New York City’s 311 call system were to evolve so that “someday a descendant of 311 will allow small groups of citizens to self-organize teams to repair potholes on neighborhood streets, bypassing government intervention altogether”?