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Author sees blueprints for social change in Internet design

Principles that created the Internet such as decentralization and peer-to-peer networks should be used much more to tackle some of society's most pressing issues, technology writer Steven Johnson argues in his new book.

"Increasingly, we are choosing another path, one predicated on the power of networks," Johnson writes in "Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age." 

"Not digital networks, necessarily, but instead the more general sense of the word: webs of human collaboration and exchange."

Trailblazing examples Johnson cites of such systems include 311, New York City's information hotline; Kickstarter, a web site where people seek funds for creative projects; and Wikipedia, which Johnson lauds as "a living book, growing smarter and more comprehensive every day, thanks to the loosely coordinated actions of millions of human beings across the planet."

While Johnson finds similar collaborative parallels in pre-industrial communities like Renaissance trading cities, he traces the modern trend to the 1960s. That's when engineer Paul Baran designed a decentralized, web-like military communications system that would influence the design of ARPANET, the research network that led, in turn, to the Internet.

"Traditionally, networks had involved centralized mainframes that contained far more processing power and storage capacity than the less advanced terminals connected to them," Johnson writes. "ARPANET, on the other hand, was a network of equals, of peers. No single machine had authority over the others."

In networking that decentralizes intellectual power even as it boosts it, Johnson envisions the future. He calls it "peer progressivism" and tries to show how it might reshape debates on many subjects — from capitalism's focus on short-term profits to improving the effectiveness of unionized teachers, he says.

Techies and political wonks are likely to find Johnson's ideas stimulating. It's a brew tapping both libertarian and liberal philosophies: respect for the individual but distrust of laissez-faire capitalism; support of government's role in cultivating progress but distrust of centralized planning.

Such disparate iconoclasts as liberal Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and conservative Rep. Ron Paul of Texas influence this "new political philosophy," Johnson claims.

Thus, for example, Johnson thinks patent enforcement stifles innovation. So he favors government-sponsored prizes for innovation, rather than patented property rights.

"By creating an outlandish award for a successful product," Johnson says of legislation Sanders introduced in 2011 to encourage pharmaceutical breakthroughs, "Sanders seeks to increase the network of organizations attacking the problem. And by mandating that the innovations not be shackled to the artificial monopolies of patents, these bills increase the network of people who can enhance and refine those innovations."

Businesses with "flatter" hierarchy focused on pleasing employees and customers as well as shareholders offer a more successful and creative alternative to centralized corporate structures, Johnson writes.

At Whole Foods, for example, no one is allowed to earn more than 19 times the salary of the average worker, and bonus recipients can distribute some of their rewards to others.

"The best way to maximize long-term profits is to create value for the entire interdependent business system," Johnson quotes Whole Foods CEO John Mackey as saying.

Johnson's manifesto is overwhelmingly optimistic about technology and the good will inside people. The language reflects the idealism, though his penchant for phrases like "in a world" can echo like ads for a bad science fiction movie: "in a world of peer-network media," "in a world dominated by massive states and corporations," "in a world with 311-style networks."

But, he writes, collaborative, self-made networks are the future. Everyday American life has steadily improved over the last 20 years in good economic times or bad, Johnson writes, thanks in part to the flow of "laborsaving technologies."

Though he presents statistics to support that claim, no doubt many an unemployed factory worker might dispute it.

Also, not everyone sees the empowering aspects of the Web with such optimism. Critic Jaron Lanier's 2006 essay "Digital Maoism" argued that Wikipedia and other "online collectivism" can subtly elevate group-think over individualism.

But the vision of "Future Perfect" is a refreshing tonic to fears that the Web is dehumanizing. Many of the ideas Johnson explores are provocative. Why shouldn't government generate innovation with prizes? What if, he suggests at one point, schools were structured as employee-owned businesses in which teachers were shareholders?

"The peer progressive's faith in the positive effects of the Internet rests on this democratic principle," Johnson writes. "When you give people more control over the flow of information and decision making in their communities, their social health improves - incrementally, in fits and starts, but also inexorably."

(Editing By Peter Bohan)

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