Steven Johnson is optimistic about the future. But, in order to ensure progress going forward, he insists that we harness the power of the peer network.
In his new book, Future Perfect, Johnson highlights the success of collaborative efforts such as Wikipedia and Kickstarter and advises us to use similar decentralized networks of people to help solve problems in the coming years. He calls his worldview “peer progressivism.”
What is flawed about the way we, as a society, think about progress?
We are strangely biased, as individuals and media institutions, to focus on big sudden changes, whether good or bad—amazing breakthroughs, such as a new gadget that gets released, or catastrophic failures, like a plane crash. We tend to not have a lot of interest in stories of incremental progress, where every year something gets one percent better or even a fraction of one percent better.
There has been an amazing drop in crime in the United States over the last 20 years. Divorce rates—everybody always talks about 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Well, that was true in 1979. It is no longer true. People are much less likely to divorce now. Drug use is down. Teenage pregnancy is down. School dropout rates are down. There is a long list of indices of social health that have improved over the last 20 years. You just don’t hear about it.
One of the key things that progress is made of is this slow-but-steady progress, and it is not necessarily coming from innovations of the marketplace. It is not Apple that is causing smoking to decline at the incredible rate that it has over the last 20 or 30 years. It is a broad network of people—some of them working for government agencies, some of them just by word of mouth, some of them philanthropic organizations—that are kind of spreading the word and getting people to give up this dangerous habit.
We need to be celebrating this type of progress because it is good news, and it is nice to have good news, but also because it helps us to understand how we can do more of it.
In the book, you say that the public’s response to the Miracle on the Hudson encapsulates everything that is wrong with our outlook. How so?
It is extraordinary how safe flying has become. You are now statistically more likely to be elected president of the United States in your lifetime than you are to die in a plane crash. What an amazing achievement as a society! But what we end up focusing on are the catastrophic failures that are incredibly rare but happen every now and then.
Even when we have a story like the “Miracle on the Hudson,” where the plane crashes but everyone survives, we point to the superhero of Captain Sully. He was an amazing pilot and did an amazing job in landing that plane, but he was only part of that story. The other key part of that story was the way that the plane performed in that situation.