critical eye

The future’s so bright …

How to save the world while paying people with beer and hugs
November 1, 2012

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.”

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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”?

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.

Since Johnson’s entire book relies on anecdotal evidence, I feel comfortable mustering some of my own in response. In August 2012, with her new solo album on the verge of release, Amanda Palmer took to the Internet again with another request. This time, she was looking for professional-caliber string musicians to play for free on her tour. “we [sic] will feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make,” she wrote.

The public reaction this time wasn’t as positive, with many surprised that a woman who raised $1.2 million couldn’t afford to pay professional musicians for their time. Palmer, under national media scrutiny, ultimately decided to pay the musicians, which is perhaps a sign that crowdfunding allows fans some oversight on the projects they support. But I think it’s worth examining Palmer’s initial reaction. Peer progressivism doesn’t just incidentally encourage the use of free labor. The entire system relies on it. First you try it, then you depend on it, then the whole industry depends on it, and then there is no industry.

The peer progressives, one suspects, would be content if everyone in their networks were paid in beer and hugs. But somebody’s still earning money, be it Amanda Palmer, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, or Steven Johnson—who sits on the advisory boards of Patch and, owns a $2.7 million house in Marin County, and will probably be back with another page-turner in 2014. I can see why the future looks perfect to him.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.