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The Power Of Peers
Steven Johnson - The Power Of Peers
Steven Johnson
Written by Steven Johnson, author of Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

We live in a universe that is profoundly shaped by the power of emergence: self-organizing systems that create order and intelligence from below not above. Emergent systems have an incredible ability to solve problems without traditional "leaders" or executive control centers. The cells in our immune system self-organize to fight infectious diseases; our neurons connect to form higher-level consciousness; ant colonies collectively solve complex engineering problems. The growing understanding of these decentralized systems--spanning genetics, neuroscience, environmental science, and many other fields--stands as one of the defining paradigm shifts of modern science.
During the same recent history, decentralized systems have also become dominant in technology, thanks to the success of the Internet and the Web (and sites like Wikipedia.) The Internet and its descendants are "peer networks" -- not controlled by a single corporation or government or central supercomputer. Instead, they rely on the distributed intelligence of the network, where every participant contributes a small piece to the overall system.

And yet, despite the clear track record of these bottom-up, emergent systems -- in biology and in technology -- our day-to-day life is still largely shaped by the exact opposite. We live in societies dominated by massive, top-down hierarchies: multinational corporations and government bureaucracies. But that is starting to change. A new social movement is emerging, inspired by the success of the Internet and the Web, that is trying to harness the power of decentralized peer networks to solve some of society's most pressing problems. You can see them at work in the arts-funding site Kickstarter; in the participatory budgeting movement that began in Porto Allegre, Brazil, where neighbors decide what the government should fund in their community; in the networked protests of Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street.

Unlike so many of today's dystopians, the people behind these movements actually believe that we can solve the problems that confront us as a society, and they believe that emergent networks will be the key to those solutions. They believe in progress,and they believe that peer networks are key to make that progress a reality. I call them the "peer progressives." My new book, Future Perfect, makes the case that they are the most interesting, and most encouraging, cell on the weather map of twenty-first-century politics.

Many of the most promising peer networks today utilize advanced technology, but from a certain angle, they can be seen as a return to a much older tradition. The social organizations of the paleolithic era—the human mind’s formative years—were much closer to peer networks than they were to states or corporations. As E. O. Wilson writes in The Social Conquest Of Earth, “Hunter-gatherer bands and small agricultural villages are by and large egalitarian. Leadership status is granted individuals on the basis of intelligence and bravery, and through their aging and death it is passed to others, whether close kin or not. Important decisions in egalitarian societies are made during communal feasts, festivals, and religious celebrations. Such is the practice of the few surviving hunter-gatherer bands, scattered in remote areas, mostly in South America, Africa, and Australia, and closest in organization to those prevailing over thousands of years prior to the Neolithic era.” Defenders of the free market have long stressed the “natural” order of competition, drawing on a loose interpretation of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” But as Darwin himself understood, webs of collaboration and open exchange have always been central to evolutionary progress, never more so than in the history of our intensely social species.

The fact that a corporation (or a government bureaucracy) would have been bewildering to our paleolithic ancestors does not in itself mean those modern inventions are worthless. After all, the Internet would have perplexed them just as much. But it may help explain why so many people have been drawn to participate in peer networks, despite the lack of traditional monetary rewards. (Think about the miracle that is Wikipedia--created entirely out of the unpaid intellectual labor of hundreds of thousands of contributors.) There is something in the collaborative, egalitarian structure of these systems that resonates with the human mind, an echo of our deep history as a species.

For the past two centuries, we have lived in a mass society defined by passive consumption, vast corporate hierarchies, and the centralized control of state power. Those organizations didn’t seem artificial to us because we couldn’t imagine an alternative. But now we can. Peer networks are not some rarified theory, dreamed up on a commune somewhere, or in a grad school seminar on radical thought. They are a practical, functioning reality, one that already underlies the dominant communications platform of our age. This is why it is such an encouraging time to build on these values. We know that peer networks can work in the real world. The task now is to discover how far they can take us. 

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