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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One mechanism is the idea of prize-backed challenges, where a wealthy person or the government creates some kind of prize for solving a problem that for whatever reason the market and the state aren’t solving on their own. There is a long tradition of prizes being a big driver of breakthroughs in science and technology. The Royal Society in the United Kingdom started these prizes, which they call “premiums” that drove a lot of breakthroughs in the age of the Enlightenment. What they do is create market-like incentives for a much more distributed, diverse network of people to apply their talents, minds and ingenuity to solve a problem.

There is a great opportunity to use these kinds of mechanisms in healthcare. In my book, I talk a little bit about creating these big billion dollar prizes for breakthroughs in various forms of prescription drugs. As long as you agree once you have come up with this drug to release it, effectively, open source and allow generics to be produced at much lower cost, we will give you $2 billion for your breakthrough. You end up then taking those ideas and getting them into circulation much more quickly, so that other people can improve them, because there is not a patent on the invention. Those kinds of mechanisms, I think, could be a great force for good in the world.

Is there low-hanging fruit? What is a problem that you think could be solved immediately, if only a peer network were created to address it?

One of the problems we have with the way that elections are funded these days is that a very small number of people are having a disproportionate impact on the system. A tiny percentage of the population is contributing a huge amount of the money to these campaigns. That is a betrayal of democratic values but also peer progressive values, in the sense that you want to have a diverse and decentralized group of people who are funding the system.

The wonderful solution to this, though it will be very hard to implement, is this idea of democracy vouchers, which Larry Lessig and a few other folks have come up with. This idea suggests that registered voters get $50 of their taxes, money that they are going to spend paying their taxes, that they can spend on supporting a candidate or supporting a party. They can match that with $100 of their own money if they want. If you were a candidate and you said, “Hey, I would like to have access to that money,” you would have to renounce all other forms of financial support. There would be so much money in that system that it would be hard to say no to it. That would instantly take this very undemocratic process, where one percent of the population is funding most of these campaigns, and turn it into a much more participatory system.

This interview series focuses on big thinkers. Without knowing whom I will interview next, only that he or she will be a big thinker in their field, what question do you have for my next interview subject?

When you look back on all your big thoughts that you have had over your career, what is the biggest thing that you missed? What is the thing that in all your observations about the world you now realize was a total blind spot that you should have figured out 10 years before it suddenly surprised you? What was the biggest hole in your thinking?

From my last interviewee, Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men: Can women fit the genius mold? Can you imagine a female Bill Gates, someone who works outside the institution, drops out of work, completely follows her own rhythm? That is the kind of woman that seems next on the landscape. And can that be a woman? 

Yeah. One thing we know about unusually innovative people and creative thinkers is that they are very good at connecting disciplines. They are very good at seeing links from different fields and bringing them together, or borrowing an idea from one field and importing it over. That is often where a great breakthrough comes from. It doesn’t come from an isolated genius trying to have a big thought.

I think that there is a lot of evidence that that kind of associative thinking is something that for whatever reason, whether it is cultural or biological—I suspect it is probably a combination of both—women, on average, are better at than men. They are able to make those connective leaps better than men can. If we create cultural institutions that allow women with those talents to thrive, I think you are going to see a lot of Wilhelma Gates in the future.


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