Who Needs a Boss When You Have Your Co-Workers?

In a new book, Steven Johnson encourages us to lose top-down hierarchies, typical of companies, and instead organize around peer networks

(Jacket design by Alex Merto/Portrait by Nina Subin)

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The engines didn’t fail catastrophically, sending shards of titanium into the fuselage and blowing up the plane, and they survived to give enough power to the electronic system. This enabled the Airbus to keep its fly-by-wire system intact, which enabled Sully to have all of this really crucial assistance in pulling the plane down to land at the right level of descent. Those systems were the combined knowledge of thousands of people, some of them working for the private sector but many of them actually working in government agencies and in NASA, that set up both the technology and the engineering that made it possible for that landing to happen.

As a society, we are like, “Look at the Superman!” or “It’s a miracle!” In fact, it precisely wasn’t a miracle. It was this long, collaborative network of ideas being shared and improved upon that built that system and enabled that plane to survive. If we don’t figure out a way to champion those network successes then we are also missing an important part of the story.

Believing in the peer network is a political orientation, as far as you see it, right? 

Yeah. Here is this emerging political philosophy that doesn’t readily fit the existing categories that we have. The cliché of the left is that it believes in the power of the state and the government to provide platforms and safety nets for society, and the cliché of the right is that it just believes in the marketplace and wants the government to get out of everybody’s way. But if you actually believe in this other thing, the power of the peer network to solve problems, it is hard to figure out which camp you are supposed to belong to. I decided to write this book to attempt to formalize this belief system that I am seeing around me and to give it a name.

What makes a peer network better able to solve our problems than a hierarchy?

Organizations that empower folks further down the chain or try to get rid of the big hierarchal chains and allow decision making to happen on a more local level end up being more adaptive and resilient because there are more minds involved in the problem.

In a peer network, no one is officially in charge. It doesn’t have a command hierarchy. It doesn’t have a boss. So, all the decisions are somehow made collectively. The control of the system is in the hands of everyone who is a part of it. They are modeled, in many cases, on the success of the Internet, the web and Wikipedia, all of which are peer networks in their architecture.

You want to have diverse perspectives in the network. And there has to be some kind of mechanism, when ideas are shared through the network, for the good ideas to be amplified and for the bad ideas to be weeded out.

[The Web site] Kickstarter, for instance, is a great example of a peer network supporting creative arts with “crowdfunding” techniques. One of the key things about Kickstarter is that less than 50 percent of the projects get funded. That is a sign that it is working, because not every project deserves to be funded. There is a selection pressure there of individuals voting for certain things with their financial support. Good ideas rise to the top and get funding, and ideas that aren’t as good don’t survive.

You advocate that we should be building more of these networks. Where? In what areas?


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