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

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.

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?

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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