Friday, June 21, 2013

In favor of “peer progressives”: how, where, and why they’re good for TIMN (part 1 of 4)

[UPDATE — July 1, 2013: Edited to note that this post is now appearing in 4 parts.]

[UPDATE — June 25, 2013:  Edited to note that this post is now appearing in 3 parts, not 2.]

A colleague recommended reading Steven Johnson’s new book Future Perfect (2012) because, he said, it is a lot like TIMN (h/t Dick O’Neill, Highlands Forum). And indeed it is. This post is about Johnson’s concept of “peer progressives” being consistent with TIMN, particularly the +N network part. His book shows that TIMN-like views are spreading better than I knew.

Indeed, I recommend that readers interested in TIMN who don’t cotton to my acronymic short-hand lingo go read Johnson’s plain-English book. It’s good for the long-range cause of TIMN-type thinking — despite shortcomings I’ll mention.

Here are the major areas where Johnson’s themes parallel and overlap with TIMN:
  • Network forms of organization are on the rise.
  • They and their proponents are altering all areas of society.
  • Hierarchy and market forms of organization will endure, though altered.
  • People will treat networks — not just governments or markets — as solutions.
  • New political philosophies and ideologies will emerge.
But there are some areas where his observations and speculations fall short of TIMN:
  • TIMN implies that a new sector will grow around the network form. Johnson’s write-up does not detect this, though I suspect it would appeal to future peer progressives.
  • TIMN offers a quadriform understanding of society and its future prospects. The view in Future Perfect remains triformist — though a kind of triformist-plus.
This post discusses all that. Until now, the writings that parallel TIMN the most have been those of Michel Bauwens and others associated with P2P theory. Compared to each other, Bauwens is well to the Left; and Johnson seems to be moderately left-of-center, a liberal centrist. This pleases me, since TIMN depends on its kinds of notions spreading across the political spectrum. I’m still waiting for a comparable voice on the Right, but so far its voices don’t seem to “get” the network form to a great extent.

Apology to readers: This post is long and repetitive — becoming so much so in the course of drafting that I'm posting it in four separate parts. But my purpose isn’t so much to offer a readable review, as to compose a repository for my notes from the book, in part because I’m not sure what I might want to use anew in the future. For me, better to stash too much here now, than to have to go back and peruse the book again later.

* * * * *

Emergence of peer progressives

As in the case of TIMN (e.g., here and here), Johnson’s departure point is the rise of network forms of organization made possible by the new information technologies. By now, of course, that is the departure point for myriad writings about the information age. What’s singular about Johnson’s analysis is his focus on “peer networks” propelled by “peer progressives” — the latter term being his major contribution.

I and many other analysts have long wondered about the prospects for peer-to-peer networks in all areas of society. But to my knowledge this is the first time that someone has coined an attractive apt name for actors who believe in network forms of organization, strategy, and technology, and who also operate according to positive social values that amount to a new philosophical or ideological orientation. As Johnson explains in a recent post at his blog about the book,
“I wrote Future Perfect in large part to capture all the thrilling new experiments and research into peer collaboration that I saw flourishing all around me, and to give those diverse projects the umbrella name of peer progressivism so that they could be more easily conceived as a unified movement. But I also wrote the book with the explicit assumption that we had a lot to learn about these systems.” (source)
Here’s a string of quotations from the book that show Johnson’s take on the concept of peer progressives — who they are, what they believe:
“As I spent more time watching and thinking about this emerging movement, I began to realize that its political values did not readily map onto existing political categories. The people who most interested me were wary of centralized control, but they were not free-market libertarians. They believed in the power of competition, but they also believed that some of society’s most important achievements could not be incentivized with economic reward. They called themselves entrepreneurs but worked mostly in the public sector. They were equally suspicious of big government and big corporations.” (pp. xxxv-xxxvi)
“We believe in social progress, and we believe the most powerful tool to advance the cause of progress is the peer network. We are peer progressives.” (p. 20)
“The peer progressive believes that the social architecture of the distributed network is fundamentally a force for good in the world, on the order of other related institutions, such as democracies or marketplaces. And the peer progressive believes that the Internet has been the dominant role model and breeding ground for peer networks over the past decade or two.” (p. 110-111)
“After all, peer progressives have a very clear set of values that draw upon the older tradition of progressive politics. They believe in equality, participation, diversity. There's nothing laissez-faire about their agenda for progress. They take the social architecture of the peer network and direct it toward problems that markets have failed to solve.” (pp. 113-114)
“To be a peer progressive, then, is to live with the conviction that Wikipedia is just the beginning, that we can learn from its success to build new systems that solve problems in education, government, health, social communities, and countless other regions of human experience. … That is a future worth looking forward to. Now is the time to invent it.” (pp. 213-214)
In other words, peer progressivism is as much about network-oriented values as it is about organization and technology. It’s also about how values, organization, and technology all fit together. For peer progressives favor peer networks because such networks embody values that best suit such a form of organization: diversity, equality, freedom, democracy, sharing, pooling, openness, and collaboration along with competition. All this starts to fill in what Arquilla and I saw as the “narrative level” that networks require to function well (according to our Networks and Netwars volume, 2001, Ch. 10).

The value that comes up the most is diversity. Peer progressives value diversity so highly because seeking diverse inputs should assure smarter, more flexible, innovative thinking:
“The problem-solving capacity that comes from diverse networks is one of the cornerstones of the peer progressive worldview.” (p. 98)
“One of the key values of peer progressivism is intellectual and professional diversity; groups that draw on different conceptual frameworks consistently outperform more single-minded groups.” (source)
According to Johnson, peer progressivism is very future-oriented and will grow to become a unified philosophy that is new and original. It’s still nascent and inchoate, but it’s gaining enough impetus in enough places that it will eventually turn into a wave (p. xxxvii).

In all these regards, Johnson’s observations overlap nicely with TIMN and its implications for the emergence of the +N part. The concept of peer progressivism adds a new kind of focus for +N that I’ve been hoping to see crop up eventually somewhere.

Related concepts: networked individualism and cooperative individualism

Johnson wondered about other trendy terms for what he was observing (e.g., “net utopians” and “netarians”). But none seemed correct, so he coined and settled on “peer progressives.” Yet his term bears some relation to another recent term that he doesn’t mention: “networked individualism,” and its cognate “cooperative individualism.” Neither of the two is as apt as his term, but they help illuminate points that are embedded in his term yet not as fully laid out.

The first is from sociologist Barry Wellman, a scholar of social network analysis. His point is that Americans are “moving from a society bound up in little boxes to a multiple network – and networking – society” (source). I gather his is not meant to be a political concept, though it has some political implications. (For more, see his co-authored book here, as well as Clay Spinuzzi’s review here.)

The second comes from activist David Bollier, an advocate of commons perspectives. Bollier’s concerns are eminently political, yet based on a forward-looking theoretical insight. It is that advocating for the commons
“asks us to transcend some of the familiar dichotomies of modern life – “public” vs. “private,” “individual” vs. “collective,” “objective” vs. “subjective” – and to begin to see these dualisms in a more integrated, blended form. “Cooperative individualism” is one shorthand that I like to use.” (source)
What they and fellow analysts seek — even more than Johnson — are terms that bridge and balance between individualism and collectivism, as well as between competition and collaboration, in ways attuned to the rise of network forms of organization. Kevin Carson, a P2P market anarchist, has added (here) that “stigmergic organization” is crucial, for stigmergy means interactive inputs by individuals that help coordinate and modify the whole: “So stigmergy is the highest realization of both individualism and collectivism, without either diminishing or qualifying the other in any way.” Good point — though the term does not seem suited to common parlance.

Also, while Johnson says his term reflects aspects of libertarianism and anarchism along with progressivism, he says little about two other isms that have long figured in discussions about progressive information-age actors: communitarianism, and more so, cosmopolitanism. Some peer progressives seem in tune with those isms as well. But little matter — Johnson’s term resonates the best, in my view.

Peer networks vis à vis (and versus) hierarchies and markets

Like TIMN — not to mention many other frameworks (source) — Johnson analyzes the rise of network forms of organization on their own merits and in relation to the two most established forms: hierarchies and markets. He is sensibly insightful regarding the evolving nature of all three forms.

As Johnson says (p. 194), “The conviction that peer networks can be a transformative force for good in the world is perhaps the core belief of the peer-progressive worldview.” And by “peer networks” he means much the same as what others (myself included) have meant by all-channel, peer-to-peer, full-mesh, rhizomatic, and/or distributed networks — not just any networks, but dense networks of fully interconnected peers, allowing for diverse values and views to be expressed, sorted, pooled, and processed.

To depict his point, he draws (p. 12) on a classic RAND publication by Paul Baran, the “father of the Internet,” that contrasts three network designs: centralized (single-hub, hierarchical), decentralized (multi-hub, heterarchical), and distributed (so decentralized and all-channel that no hubs appear). In a metaphor that runs throughout the book, then, Johnson associates the first design with hierarchy, calling it the “Legrand Star” after a misguided late-19th century French design for its state-run railroad system. And he associates the third design with peer networks, calling it the “Baran Web” since it corresponds to Baran’s original design for the Internet. Thus, much of the book is about areas of society where traditional hierarchies — Legrand Stars — are being outperformed and/or superseded by peer networks: Baran Webs.

In my TIMN view, that’s a good highly-readable metaphor for contrasting hierarchies and networks. But it’s also a bit misleading: Not all hierarchical institutions reduce solely to the Legrand-Star design; many today are closer to the decentralized design, for which he does not offer a metaphor. Moreover, many valuable types of networks don’t quite correspond to the Baran-Web design. Peer networks are very important, but it’s not yet clear which network designs will prevail where in the future. Even so, his theme is engaging, and his treatment is nuanced-enough to mitigate my quibbling.

In general, then, Johnson sees — and by implication, peer progressives see — that many large institutions are failing, and “being replaced by interlinked networks of smaller, more nimble units” (p.24). Indeed, according to a remark about the media landscape that applies to other areas,
“the simplest way to understand what has happened over that period is this: the overarching system of news is transitioning from a Legrand Star to a Baran Web, from a small set of hierarchical organizations to a distributed network of smaller and more diverse entities.” (p. 79)
Yet, much as peer progressives are disillusioned with “the older models of Big Capital or Big Government” (p. xxxvii), Johnson has carefully noted (here) that “we need to avoid the easy assumption that decentralized, peer-based approaches will always outperform centralized ones.” He is quite aware that pragmatic hybrid designs may be required in some areas, combining mixtures of bottom-up and top-down dynamics.

As for the other form in his triad — markets — they are not designated with a stand-out visual metaphor, but the book is as much about networks vis à vis markets as it is about hierarchies. Johnson finds particularly strong affinities between peer progressives and market libertarians, for he says (p, 28), with a nod to Friedrich Hayek, that
“True markets display almost all of the core principles of the peer-progressive worldview. ... To be a peer progressive is to believe in the power of markets.”
Yet, he clarifies (p. 29), peer progressives don’t have entirely the same views about markets as traditional libertarians. Peer progressives are as keen about individualism, but without being as anti-state. For peer progressives believe that states can be crucial for enabling and protecting individualism.

Moreover, peer progressivism does not claim that markets can provide answers to all needs and problems; where market failures arise, it prefers to look for network solutions instead:
“Instead of turning a blind eye to market failures, it assumes that these problems are widespread, and actively seeks them out as the central focus of its agenda. Instead of building a large government agency to combat the problem, it tries to build a peer network around it, a system of dense, diverse, and decentralized exchange.” (p. 30)
Furthermore, peer progressives have values that are at odds with standard libertarianism about private property, ownership, and motivation (pp. 129-131). Peer progressives prefer to keep ideas circulating, without worrying so much about ownership. That’s “because the open exchange of ideas is a core attribute of all peer networks” — peer progressives want to reward people not only for coming up with good ideas but also for sharing them (p. 131). In a way, then, the more a peer-network enterprise — e.g., Kickstarter, Wikipedia — operates like a gift economy, the better (p. 45-46). Financial rewards are not the paramount incentives. That’s partly why such enterprises are able to address and solve problems that markets previously fumbled. Johnson is particularly keen to note cases where “a diverse network working outside the marketplace establishes a worthy goal, and an even more diverse network sets out to find a way to reach it” (p. 149).

In short, even as peer progressives extol the virtues of peer networks, they still see virtues in preserving hierarchies and markets as ways of making societies function well. They tend to be more critical of hierarchies than markets, but they recognize that well-functioning societies require balanced combinations of all three forms of organization. All of which substantiates that Johnson’s points parallel and overlap with TIMN.



Chad K said...

I find it interesting that you are "still waiting for a comparable voice on the Right". You would think that a certain portion of right-leaning Libertarians, with their vast spectrum of beleifs, would stand out. I self-identify as centre-right and Peer Progressivism is right up my alley! (of course, I have a somewhat technical background, and have lived as an expat for most of my life, so I understand the power of networks)

David Ronfeldt said...

i appreciate your comment (and i'll get to your email before long). next up here at this blog will be a post about a book by two conservative libertarians — it's titled America 3.0 — but my focus will be on its valuable treatment of the tribal form, not the network form.

Chad K said...

I will be curious to see your comments about that book. I have known Michael Lotus for a number of years, as we collaborated on a couple of books about 5GW and Karl Von Clausewitz and our blogs (his Chicago Boyz, mine Coming Anarchy) interacted often back in my national security heyday. He is MUCH more conservative than I by far.

To bring it back to Steven Johnson's book, he alludes to the idea that network based political philosophies will span the spectrum. We especially see this in work on liquid democracy. I think the "information politics" I am proposing will also see guys like MLotus theorizing on the right, as well as people more left like Johnson take it their way. Like labour centric Marxism and personal freedom-centric Libertarianism, some political philosophies can have quite a wide array of applications across the political spectrum.

I look forward to your email reply.