By Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson is one of our most frequently reviewed authors on our annual reading list. Johnson has written a number of remarkable books, many linked thematically by their attention to the concept of “connectedness”. His previously listed works here have included: Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, a fundamental work worth revisiting periodically; The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (a personal favorite of ours); and most recently Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation, which was a foundational work in our research for last year’s Highlands Forum on “Imagination, Creativity, and Innovation”. As in each of his earlier New York Times best-selling books, Johnson is a wonderful storyteller, using fascinating and often little-known episodes to weave a larger narrative and make a major point. Johnson begins here by exploring different organizational models, with particular attention paid to networks, noting that the distributed network is the most resilient of all. Johnson is less interested in technology, but follows a line laid out in related fashion by political scientist David Ronfeldt (see his video presentation on TIMN) and Australian political philosopher John Keane on “monitory democracy”. Johnson lays out the difference between state-centralized solutions to problems and the more resilient, and perhaps capable, model of peer networks—“webs of human collaboration and exchange”. Johnson believes, and is supported by David Rothkopf (see the review of his new book here, Power, Inc.), that “twenty-first century marketplaces are dominated by immense, hierarchically organized global corporations—the very antithesis of peer networks. The global marketplace that they have helped create is indeed a wonderful thing, but the power that has consolidated in the corner offices of those behemoths is not”. Johnson, who calls himself a “peer progressive”, tells us that being a peer progressive “is to believe that the key to continued progress lies in building peer networks in as many regions of modern life as possible: in education, health care, city neighborhoods, private corporations, and government agencies”. Instead of relying on government for the solution to everything, “our first impulse should be to build a peer network to solve that problem”. Johnson seems to regularly write about something that has or will transform the way that we see or live in the world. This is Johnson’s first really “political” book, in which he describes how we change the world. He concludes that “This is a future worth looking forward to. Now is the time to invent it”.