Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Steven Johnson’s Peer to Peer Politics at MIT Media Lab

(Nathan Matias, Matt Stempeck and others at Center for Civic Media have put together an excellent blog post on this event as well – I encourage you to read their post as well.)

Election’s eve at the MIT Media Lab featured a conversation on “Peer to Peer Politics”. The featured guest, Steven Johnson, is the author of an influential new book on rethinking politics, “Future Perfect“. He’s accompanied by some of the leading lights of the participatory politics space, including three Harvard professors: Larry Lessig, Susan Crawford, and Yochai Benkler. On the night before the US election, Aaron Naparstek has brought us together to talk about Steven’s ideas for revitalizing democratic participation.

Johnson leads off talking about his new book and explaining his path from science writer to political writer. In 2001, he wrote a book called Emergence, which focused on bottom-up, emergent systems, a survey of organizations without traditional leaders and hierarchies, which solve complex problems. The book includes discussions of ants, the commenting system on Slashdot, Jane Jacobs’s reflections on functioning communities, and ended with a brief nod towards WTO protest movements, movements without a clear leader or figurehead.

It wasn’t really a book on politics. But he started reading lots of blog posts from Joi Ito on the idea of “emergent democracy”, how projects like open source software might influence political systems. Steven felt a kinship between the ideas he was working on with emergence and those Joi and others were identifying in politics. His new book, “Future Perfect”, takes these questions on directly.

Steven explains that we, as a society, seem to have agreed that there are a few basic ways of organizing human beings. We point to these methods with little explanation: the state, the market, the corporation. It’s possible that there’s a new organizing approach, neither a traditional state or a traditional market. It’s a peer network.

These networks are decentralized, distributed and highly collaborative. And they’ve had impact trying to solve a large number of problems, often with a great deal of success. Steven acknowledges that it sounds like he’s describing a basketweaving commune in Mendicino County, but then offers us some significantly more practical solutions.

Kickstarter is a good example of this, Steven tells us. It’s not trying to solve political problems, but trying to crowdfund artistic projects. In the process, it’s diversify the number of people interested in supporting creative work, and it’s on track this year to distribute more money than the National Endowment of the Arts this year.

He suggests that peer networks often work best on local levels. We can consider systems like “See, Click, Fix”, or a system like “Uncivil Servants“, a project from Aaron Naparstek that tracked the abuse of parking placards in NYC. But he’s most inspired by New York’s 311 system, a system designed to help a massive city understand what’s going on in its borders.

New York’s 311 system allows people to report problems, request services, and ask questions of local government, by calling in and talking to a live human being. Operators speak 180 languages, and the system has fielded over 100 million calls. When ranked in terms of customer satisfaction, it’s a peer with top end retailers and hotels, head and shoulders above other government systems. “Can you imagine a government agency that’s #1 in terms of customer satisfaction?”

The magic of 311 is not that it provides great service – it’s that it serves as a geo-tagged, real-time dashboard for what’s happening in the city. In effect, the city has deputized people to report problems as a form of distributed sensing, increasing intelligence of what’s going on in the city.

For some years, New Yorkers on the west side of the city were reporting the strong smell of maple syrup. Some reacted by longing for pancakes, while others wondered – in the wake of 9/11 – if this was a chemical weapon attack. The city began tracking these instances, referring to them as “Maple Syrup Events”. Because all these reports were tracked on the city’s 311 system, analysts were able to use those reports and clues. By following prevailing wind patterns, they were able to find a factory in New Jersey that was periodically producing a cheap maple flavoring using Fenugreek seeds. No, this wasn’t a life-saving intervention, but it’s an incredible example of the flexibility of a tool. No one designed the 311 system to investigate maple syrup smells, but because it was built on an extended peer network, it proved deeply effective at identifying and solving these problems.

If you think these peer networks are important, you’re in an interesting place politically. You’re not pushing for big government, because you’re pointing to the value of distributed networks outside of the state. But you’re also not anti-state or libertarian, because you don’t think these solutions happen entirely in market spaces. So Steven proposes “peer progressive”. “Peer” has a nice resonance, both with the technical definition of peers and with the civic notion of “a jury of our peers”.

Steven closes by admitting that this is a deeply optimistic book. “I’ve been on the radio talking about this book a lot, and the hosts introduce me as an optimist, as if I was a giant panda, a species we all thought was extinct.” Perhaps embracing the idea of peer progressivism means we have reasons to be optimistic.

Yochai Benkler suggests that Steven Johnson’s book helps us get beyond the last century of a politics based on a poor understanding of human thought. For the first two thirds of the last century, many systems were built on the assumption that humans were rational actors. Fordism, Taylorism, Weber and Schumpeter’s views of the world were based on these ideas of rational organization. For the last third of the century, these overly simple views of rationalism were replaced with an idea that humans were self-interested economic actors who could be incentivized. The peak of this system was not Reagan and Thatcher, Yochai asserts, but under Bill Clinton, where even progressives adopted a market-based deregulatory system, and even the left gave up on central organization of rational individuals in favor of finding the right price.

By 2008, we figured out that this was wrong, through the global crash of financial markets. We’re collectively moving to a more complex understanding of human behavior, understanding concepts like trust and trustworthiness, solidarity and empathy. Understanding these ideas is no longer the focus of scholars on the fringe – the cutting edge of science from evolution to psychology to business management is considering these ideas. It’s the state of the discipline, but the public conversation hasn’t caught up.

We also have lived experience of other ways to organize, from free software to Wikipedia. We know these systems can work – what we don’t know is whether they can scale. Yochai tells Steven that he’s been considering his examples of peer networking and trying to find evidence that they work at a larger scale than the government or the private sector. Kickstarter is challenging the NEA, but is still vastly smaller than the entertainment industry. Kiva will raise 2/3rds the budget of USAID this year, which is very impressive, but Grameen Bank will raise 15 times that to support microlending. It’s possible that we need to consider the “dark social” aspects of movements like Occupy Sandy working on flood relief in Brooklyn or the impact of Ushahidi on mapping flooded neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey… but we also need to consider the relative proportionality of that work in comparison to FEMA or to the private flood insurance market.

As much as Yochai likes the 311 example, it’s worth asking whether a system that pushed back against the state, rather than a system built by the state, could have a similar impact. Those of us who are inspired by this movement need to be self-critical. We need to look for systems that could deliver large scale change and figure out why they’re not yet at scale. It’s exciting to look for social alternatives to market based solutions, but we need to consider what’s a peer-based solution that can systematically respond at high levels of scale.

Susan Crawford argues that the promise of Steven’s book is the promise of compromise and common ground. She acknowledges Steven’s gifts as a storyteller and begins with a story of her own. Her father was a rock-ribbed Republican from New Jersey, in an age where the state was the home of numerous corporate trusts. He was infuriated both by corporate trusts and by unions – his frustration wasn’t left or right, but with the consolidation of power.

If we can find common causes, like the abuse of power, Susan argues, we can find political pathways forward. This means not abandoning state systems, but finding ways to challenge them and make them work better. The response to Hurricane Sandy reminds us that government continues to have an important role, but we need to engage in critique, scrutiny and improvement to build systems that are resilient and robust.

The challenge, Susan offers, is getting from Steven’s book to a movement. “We can self-organize to change the political discussion in America,” she offers. “We can’t be on the side of the market or the state – that can’t be right” – the solution is somewhere beyond that simple duality, and in searching for it, we can mobilize and change the world.

Larry Lessig introduces himself as a professional pessimist, who had a rare moment of optimism reading Steven’s book. He allows for the notion that we may see a very different type of politics in thirty years, but notes that it’s hard to imagine precisely how it comes to pass.

We had a moment of great optimism around SOPA/PIPA. The copyright lobby believed itself to be invincible, But instead, a cross-partisan movement bubbled up and destroyed the legislation, astonishing all of us. Unfortunately, that success story doesn’t seem to be easily replicated. We thought we’d built a button we could push and we could suddenly mobilize an informed, energized cross-partisan movement. But we’ve not been able to push the button and have the same outcomes since.

Our challenge, Larry suggests, is that we’re fighting forces that can buy infinite amounts of television time and that have hate built into their revenue models. Fox and MSNBC both rally their base and make their money by hating the enemy. That’s a tough opponent to overcome with a message of cooperation.

Some months back, Lessig spoke to Occupy Wall Street and urged the movement to talk with the Tea Party about crony capitalism. Someone in the audience responded, telling Lessig that he was a former Tea Party founder and runs a site focused on Crony Capitalism. The cooperation Lessig hoped for was already underway. But a few days later, The Nation wrote a pice excoriating Lessig for engaging with “the racists” in the Tea Party. One of the left’s preferred journals has discovered that it’s profitable to engage with polarization.

The problem, Lessig argues, is that we’re children of the age of command and control structures. We’ve been raised in a political climate where we’ve forgotten the age of bottom-up change. We’re in the early stages of the return of read/write media and read/write political culture. There’s great hope in this forthcoming change, but we have to give up on the idea of having a simple button to push to mobilize a movement.

The conversation returns to Steven, who acknowledges that the systems he celebrates in “Future Perfect” are likely not very good at long-term thinking. It’s possible that these systems are strong at bottom-up thinking on immediate, pressing problems, but that we need to consider ways to ask peer networks to consider problems on a 20-100 year timescale. Do we need large, hierarchical systems to ensure that we build the bridges and seawalls we’ll need in twenty years?

Yochai suggests that we’re already doing our long-term planning in this decentralized way. Think tanks and universities are fertile grounds for exploring these ideas, but there’s a problem in bridging between this long-term thinking and systems that operate within the political world. We’ve done lots of thinking about climate change in the university setting – the problems of acting on climate change aren’t the problems of long-term planning.

Lessig’s response to Yochai begins, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” We’ve just gone through an election where climate change hasn’t been mentioned by either of the major candidates, he points out. It’s the most “normal” election we’ve seen in years, apparently uninfluenced by peer participation.

Susan acknowledges that there’s a conversation about climate change in university settings, but the conversation isn’t connected to levers of power. That’s the danger of many of the experiments in open government systems: there’s lots of momentum around releasing data and holding hackathons, but despite efforts to develop bright and shiny objects, we’ve seen the emergence of few projects that are sustainable and change lives. “There’s no rich connection between the creativity we see in the open government space and the actual policymakers.”

Yochai notes that it can be a long process between distributed citizen movements and visible change. That said, it’s hard to imagine the wave of progressive civil rights legislation in the US without the pressure from the civil rights movement – a decentralized movement created the environment for legislative change. It’s not yet clear whether SOPA/PIPA will be a new model for change, or whether broadcast media is still dominant.

Steven notes that in looking for examples of peer networks accomplishing work, not just voicing opposition, he’s looking towards local movements. Participatory budgeting is an especially promising field, as voters get to allocate money towards a sewer line extension, then see it happen. Because they see results of their labors, they come back for more. But this may be a very difficult place to do long term planning. Susan asks whether we can imagine building the Hoover Dam through peer networks. Steven suggests that we probably wouldn’t try to design it via peer networks, but we might use a peer network to decide to build it in the first place.

Aaron Naparstek wonders whether the participants feel like peer networks are inherently good – are they more democratic, inclusive or progressive than other forms of organization? Lessig notes that the Tea Party – the self-organized, bottom up groups, not the Beltway-built Tea Party Express – was a peer network that consciously used open source rhetoric. He happens to disagree with their goals, but acknowledges their successful use of peer network methods. Benkler points out that the Tea Party was an extremely successful network, taking over large parts of a political party. Decentralizing control of that party was a good thing, even if we dislike the results. A bad result would be a peer network that replicated oligarchy. What we should be searching for is peer networks that avoid oligarchy, navigate past mob effects and avoid effects of social stifling common in small groups.

Steven suggests that we need to seek diversity in peer networks not as a lever for social tolerance, but because it will increase cognitive diversity and give us smarter decisions. When we democratize decisionmaking, we see pockets of error and stridency, but we see systems overall steer towards better decisionmaking.

Amy Robinson, who works with neuroscientist Sebastian Seung to build participatory games to map human neurons, wonders how innovative crowds can bring ideas to scale. How do we build mid-level top-down structures within distributed networks, and how do we share innovations in this space? Steven suggests that there are structural features we might learn from. Wikipedia uses “stubs” – placeholder articles that identify that we should have an article on a particular subject – to signal holes that need filling by the community. Lessig notes that TEDx is going through this process now. A conference with a very powerful brand has invited fans and participants to extend, and sometimes subvert, the brand by running their own affiliated conferences. He points us to a local TEDx – TEDxBeaconStreet – that’s focused in part on hacking the TED format and extending the possibilities of the conference. If systems like TED can open themselves up to this sort of innovation, it’s a good sign for the flexibility of these systems.

Chris Peterson, a student of Civic Media at Comparative Media Studies, offers a critique in the form of a question: Aren’t we just talking about democracy here? Are we simply so frustrated with our current democratic institutions that we’re now trying to find a way to reclaim the term?

Johnson notes that democracy in the US is now identified with representative democracy. That’s not the democracy we see in a community like Linux, where the people who end leading the community are skilled practitioners, not their representatives. Lessig points out that we tend to connect democracy with the professionalization of politics. It’s hard to imagine the revival of amateur politics, where citizens are involved because they love to serve. But culture has been transformed by amateur cultural producers. To reclaim democracy, we need passionate amateurs, not idiots who treat us like idiots.

Susan points out that we’ve all had the experience of amateur politicians in local communities who we do love and support. But she defends the use of “peer progressivism”, saying “if it makes us more hopeful to say peer, that’s what we’re going to do.” Yochai suggests that the power is not in the political space, but the capacity to act together in the world, independent of the state. Peer progressivism might solve the problems of politics, but by inviting citizens to manufacture solutions and inviting the politicians to follow.


I think Steven’s book is most valuable as a conversation-starter. It’s a provocative invitation to a discussion about reinvigorating politics, not the last word on the subject. For people who were fascinated by the potential of the internet to make political campaigns more inclusive, like the Howard Dean supporters in the 2004 election, the 2012 cycle in the US has been pretty disheartening. There’s more money involved in electoral politics than in any years past, in part thanks to the Citizens United decision, and less apparent influence of social media. It seems like an odd moment to be hopeful about the ability of individuals connected by technology to influence politics.

That’s perhaps what’s most valuable about Steven’s book at this particular juncture. The naïve hope that participatory media would reform American politics has been badly battered. “Future Perfect” invites us to consider other political and civic spaces where the ability of individuals to act together, and perhaps to lead the state towards solutions, can reform politics. I find it encouraging that optimists like Benkler are poking at the cases Steven offers, asking if they’re typical or if they can scale. At the same time, it’s encouraging to see a discourse around American politics that goes beyond, “a pox on both their houses”.

That peer networks and peer progressivism works best at local scales may be a feature, not a bug. The massive overfocus on national politics, and particularly on presidential elections, is one of the most dangerous features of American politics. If local politics is fixable, perhaps local politics becomes more interesting and engaging, and perhaps there’s a path from reform at local scales to coalition-building and cooperation at national and global scale.

One Response to “Steven Johnson’s Peer to Peer Politics at MIT Media Lab”

  1. Thanks, Ethan, for this detailed overview of the discussion. Happy to see Steven coming back around to the emergent/extreme democracy thinking we were into leading up to, and following, the Dean campaign, and partly driven by Joi’s concerns about democracy in Japan as well as globally. Democracy and participatory politics are difficult concepts, and movement around them must be complex, nuanced, and very flexible. Scale is certainly the most prominent of many issues; the Internet has shown us that read/write democratization can increase the ratio of noise to signal and can be exploited, among other down sides. These are wicked problems but we don’t help ourselves by avoiding them – we need a sustained conversation and persistent response to the challenge.

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