Future Perfect, As Told Downtown

FuturePerfectFuture Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age is author Stephen Johnson’s latest work. It is a city book.

Human progress has always been the fruit of small and iterative innovations, undertaken by individuals acting on what Johnson terms “slow hunches” that accrue from experience. When these individual tinkerers are connected via decentralized networks offering numerous ways for them to interact, the cross-fertilization and productivity of these innovations is magnified.

As a result, Johnson presents his confidence that members of these flat, decentralized networks of peers, using an increasingly broad and powerful set of platforms to work together, will advance human progress in the future. They are, in his term of art, peer progressives. Interaction using these platforms is evolving the way we go about invention, trade, social life, music making, even revolution.

Johnson’s frame of reference is primarily the internet, but his heralding of the power of peer progressive values could not viably take place without both the model of the city, and the contributions of urban networks to nearly every example he cites. Consider this handful of insights from Future Perfect as they relate to urban dynamics:

Faster, Higher, Stronger
“The density and open exchange of a peer network drive up the information productivity of the overall system, because new ideas circulate quickly through the network and can be built upon or expanded at little cost. You can do more with less.” Reducing the transaction cost of developing new ideas, and stretching them into multiple commercial forms, are why Jericho was formed and the essence of why modern cities exist. In Triumph of the City, economist Ed Glaeser expresses the same sentiment in his language: “The increasingly global marketplace means that the returns to innovation have increased. Since urban density speeds the flow of new ideas, an increase in the value of innovation naturally strengthens those cities that specialize in innovation.” Information productivity will vary among cities, but cities will increasingly lead the way. They are the global leaders.

Crowdfunding as Urban Springboard
“Kickstarter, for instance, took an existing problem that markets had traditionally fumbled – how do we find and support interesting new creative forms – and radically increased both the density and diversity of participants. It gave thousands of creative people direct access to the wallets of millions of potential patrons.” Cities provide a rich backdrop for ideas to be conceived and developed as they spread through professional, personal and civic networks forming there. In art and commerce, cities provide a forum for creators to combine and recombine. Crowdfunding sites have taken the assembly of productive, critical masses around specific interests that occurs in cities, and multiplied it using technology.

City Mashup
In one of Johnson’s prior works, Where Good Ideas Come From, the author presented valuable historical context, drawing on examples including the process Johannes Gutenberg used to derive the printing press. In his account, Johnson establishes the connection between the wine presses used in Gutenberg’s native Rhineland in the 15th century, and the design of the printing press, which by economizing published print, unleashed an era of democratization and reform. In Future Perfect, he draws the same thread through to today’s open source world. “When text is free to flow and recombine,” he argues, “new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases.” Just as the city is where individuals come to mix and match with others, it is also where their ideas are shaped and shifted and made into new forms. Call it concept arbitrage.

Buckminster Fuller said “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” In Future Perfect, Stephen Johnson has delivered a succinct argument that the peer progressive model is at this moment rendering the prior model obsolete. And the peer progressive model’s home field is the city.

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