That last sentence gets at the major problem I have with this book. When Johnson argues that peer networks are making the world better, he generally means that things are getting better for people like Steven Johnson: comfortable college graduates from good neighborhoods with white-collar jobs that afford them the time to dick around on the Internet and repair potholes for fun. Johnson and his ilk assume as a matter of course that these advances will eventually trickle down to the lands that broadband forgot—and maybe so. But in the meantime, the state of progress is being defined by a group of isolated technophiles with little apparent interest in, or contact with, this country’s permanent underclass.
Peer-progressive strategies often appear contingent on some theoretical endless supply of citizens eager to pitch in and perform tasks that people were once paid to do. So let’s assume we get to the point where this pothole team exists. It’s possible that, with potholes under control in rich neighborhoods, cities might then redirect their resources to repairing roads in the slums. But it’s just as likely, if not more so, that all this volunteer labor will just encourage cities to trim public employees from the payroll. Peer progressivism empowers managers and gentrifiers first and foremost, while devaluing labor by falsely equating a sense of ownership with actual ownership.
These issues don’t negate Johnson’s arguments, but they complicate them, and any serious attempt to articulate a political philosophy would address, or at least acknowledge, these complications. By so completely ignoring them, Johnson assures that his book will be ignored by serious people—which makes me wonder who, exactly, this book is written for. A section about Whole Foods Market offers a clue. In a chapter titled “Conscious Capitalism,” Johnson praises Whole Foods, the country’s best-known organic grocer, as an exemplar of peer-progressive management strategies. Whole Foods gives its individual stores a say in how they are run, and lets employees earn performance-based bonuses and share those bonuses with deserving peers. The company has flattened its hierarchy, removing barriers that might prevent managers from connecting with their staff.
It’s nice that Whole Foods employees can earn a bonus for being speed demons on the hot bar. But they would be better off if they worked under a collectively bargained contract that protected them from being fired for no cause, or pressured into performing additional duties without additional compensation, or any number of things that real-life Whole Foods employees have complained about. Whereas Johnson looks at Whole Foods Market and sees a company that listens, I see one that refuses to hear its workers’ calls to unionize; a company whose owner has bashed organized labor in the press, stalled union drives, and claimed that binding arbitration is un-American.
Praising Whole Foods’s progressive policies while completely ignoring its reactionary ones makes it clear whose side Johnson is on. Strip away all the utopian rhetoric, and Johnson is peddling management strategies—ways that employers can get something for nothing. He writes that peer progressives want to “reward people for coming up with good ideas—and reward them for sharing those ideas.” Good! But peer progressives seem uninterested in rewarding people for just doing their jobs—the point of actual Progressivism. Johnson is offering the intellectual justification for rolling back real-world worker protections in exchange for some squishy sense of belonging and participation.
Peer networks are fascinating, dense concepts, and there is a serious book to be written about their potential for changing the world. But Future Perfect is a business book in a pop-philosophy wrapper, and I suspect it was written largely to maintain the author’s viability on the keynote circuit. The website of Johnson’s lecture agency, the Leigh Bureau, features glowing reviews from his satisfied corporate clients: “one of the world’s largest food companies,” “a Fortune 50 company,” “a major computer firm.” And, indeed, the book is superficially articulate in a way that probably sounds best when read aloud from behind a lectern.