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Steven Johnson: The Interview

In a 2003 TED Talk, Steven Johnson quipped:

"Who decides that SoHo should have this personality and that the Latin Quarter should have that personality? There are some kind of executive decisions, but mostly the answer is, everybody and nobody."

A running theme through Johnson's work is that complex systems operate best when they are left to their own mysterious devices. "Everybody and nobody" would make a concise, three-word summary of his life's work.

For example, in his 2001 bestseller, Emergence, he took the reader on a tour of emergence theory, which posits that in complex systems the whole is often smarter than the sum of its parts, even when the individual parts are literally as dumb as slime mold. In Everything Bad Is Good for You (2005), he argued that despite what your mother says, television is not only getting better, it's actually making us smarter. Yes, even reality TV.

In his latest book, Future Perfect, Johnson brings his understanding of the intelligence of diverse, decentralized networks to bear on our politics, going so far as to coin a new political worldview. Rooted in the power of decentralized peer networks and with its eye pointed squarely toward the future, he calls this the "peer progressive" movement. The peer-progressive outlook is deeply democratic. Central planning is avoided because peer progressives have faith that, more often than not, decentralized networks of individuals working together will make better decisions: "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."

÷ ÷ ÷

C. P. Farley: Future Perfect is a very upbeat, optimistic book. Yet you begin the book by talking about how pessimistic we are, how we seem to prefer negative story lines to positive ones. I'm curious why you wanted to begin the book there.

Steven Johnson: Well, I wanted to explain from the outset why I wasn't insane to be writing an optimistic book. [Laughter] You tell people that there are actually many parts of society that continue to improve, where there is an amazing track record of progress that we can point to, and with the state we are in right now, most would look around and say, Where? I don't see that. I wanted to start by saying, Look, there are success stories around us, and then move on to this new political philosophy that I believe will ensure that we see more of that progress. One of the things that I covered in researching the book that just blew me away, which has actually gotten a lot of coverage, is the extraordinary drop in crime in the United States over the last 10 or 15 years. We have lived through this extraordinary thing.

There have been books written about it and headlines in newspapers about it. It's been written about in books like the bestseller The Tipping Point and many others. But Gallup has been polling people in the United States every year for the last couple of years asking, "Is crime getting worse or is it getting better?" Every year they say it's getting worse. So everybody is ignoring this positive news and is convinced that things are worse than they were before.

Farley: Despite the conventional wisdom that the institution of marriage is falling apart, the number of divorces has actually declined over the past few decades.

Johnson: Exactly. So at some point in the book I just say, Here, take this little social studies quiz. What are the 20- or 30-year trends for the following things: divorce rates, air pollution, male-female wage equality, traffic fatalities, drunk driving? Fifteen key components of our social health, and they are all trending in the right direction. Some of them have improved by more than 40 or 50 percent over that period. These are things that you can point to and say, This is a significant section of society that is, in fact, getting better.

Ask a gay person of a certain age if they ever thought a plurality of Americans would be in favor of gay marriage in 2012!

Johnson: Right. We are experiencing changes that weren't even vaguely on the agenda 15 or 20 years ago.We are experiencing changes that weren't even vaguely on the agenda 15 or 20 years ago. No one thought we would make it there — just look at our African American president! So it is not only possible to make progress, it's happening all the time.

But the other bias we have, which really gets to the heart of the book, is a bias against stories of extended network collaboration. When something good happens, we really want to find the Steve Jobs that was behind it. We really want to find the Thomas Edison that was behind it, so we can point to the superhero. I talk about Captain Sullenberger and the miracle on the Hudson. We want to point to the superhero pilot that saved the lives of all those people.

But while this is sometimes valuable, there is also a much more complicated, but just as important, story about the thousands of people who, in this case, helped create the electronic system that greatly assisted Sullenberger in landing the plane, and the jet engines that survived the impact of the birds and kept the electronics system working.

Those thousands of nameless innovators, starting at NASA in 1970 and then eventually working at Airbus and building the 320, were just as important. But because you can't point to one of them and put them on the Today Show the next day, we don't tell that story as much. We are biased against that kind of network innovation as well.

Farley: Over the past year, I have interviewed the liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz as well as the libertarians Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch from Reason magazine. And while all of them were basically critical of absolutely everything that is happening in the country right now, the libertarians had a much sunnier attitude about the future. They seemed much more confident that things will work out in time. I bring this up because, to me, much of the book seemed like a conversation between you and libertarians.

Johnson: Yes, that's absolutely true. There is an interesting back story to that, which is that this is a book about the power of decentralized systems, inspired by the success of the Internet and by the Web and by Wikipedia. This is a theme that has run through a lot of my books. I wrote a book 12 years ago called Emergence about the bottom-up complexity in everything from ant colonies to city neighborhoods to the Internet. So I have long associated myself with the power of decentralization. When I talk about this to libertarians, they start nodding. They are like, Yes, exactly.

That was the essential point from Hayek, that decentralized systems like the marketplace will always outperform the master planners, the experts, who are trying to understand an incredibly complex thing like a society or an economy and trying to plan what it should be like. The marketplace, by dividing that knowledge into little incremental bits that reside in each buyer and seller and producer in the market, is ultimately able to be more innovative and more nuanced and adaptive and flexible because it distributes that knowledge throughout the whole system.

But then I would say, Yes, but the problem is that there are whole facets of life where markets themselves don't seem to be particularly good at solving the problem at hand or where the solution has come from nonmarket interactions that have been actually much more effective and agile and durable than the ones that came from the private sector.

Farley: Can you give an example?

Johnson: The Internet, or the Web, is such an incredibly great example. There are many technologies that we can look at and say, Look, the private sector was trying to build a big global network that would allow people to share information. It was called CompuServe, or it was called AOL, or it was called Apple's eWorld. All of those solutions ended up losing out to something that was peer produced, that was funded by the government in some cases but that was almost entirely built by people who weren't working for a government agency; they were computer scientists and hackers and hobbyists who were just collaborating on a project to share and connect information. Their solutions are what we now depend on today.

But if we were having this conversation 40 years ago and I started talking about how there was going to be this collectively produced, decentralized collaboration with no ownership and patents and private property, you would have said, I'm sure that's going to work great on your commune in Mendocino weaving baskets. [Laughter] But it's not something that is going to build something big in the world — because you need to have either big states or big corporations to build a big thing. Now we can point to the Internet and say, No, that's not true. In fact, there are other models here that can build these kinds of things.

What I tried to do is rescue the power of distributive networks and decentralization from the pure market-driven, libertarian position and say, We take that critique of centralization and big government seriously and accept that, on some level, Hayek was right. But those decentralized systems do not have to be marketplaces. They can actually have different shapes and different structures to them, different incentive structures to them. We want to build decentralized systems; we don't necessarily want them to be markets all the time.

Farley: If the Internet had been created by a corporation, someone would own it, and it wouldn't have many of the features that, one, make it work and, two, make us love it so much.

Johnson: If the Internet had been owned by someone, where there was very restrictive licensing for what you could do with it, then Tim Berners-Lee would never have been able to build the Web on top of the Internet the way that he did. That was one of the big points, actually, of my last book, Where Good Ideas Come From. We have this default assumption that innovation comes from competition, which is true sometimes, and that innovation comes from the incentive of making a vast fortune from your invention, which is also true sometimes. But innovation also comes from environments where you can freely build on top of other people's ideas or borrow somebody's idea and put it to use in a new context, because if you don't have to pay a licensing fee or have your lawyers talk to somebody else's lawyers to determine if you are even allowed to build something on somebody else's platform, it speeds up the whole process of invention. When you build these open networks, things actually happen faster, even if they don't have the same economic incentives that we take for granted in the private sector.

Farley: So, libertarians put their faith in the individual operating in the market. But the peer progressive puts their faith in the individual operating in a certain type of network, and the market is just one example of that type of network?

Yes, exactly. Exactly! Look, for another example: back to Stiglitz and his very important point about the huge problem we face with rising economic inequality in this country, one of the things I think we can learn from is capitalist, actually, just purely in the private sector. There is a long series of studies that show that companies that are more egalitarian in the way that they share their profits and less hierarchical in their decision making, that empower their employees from below rather than issuing directives from above, those companies actually perform better in the long run. On the S&P 500, they outperform more hierarchical companies where there is less equally distributed economic rewards.

This is one of those places where all sides of the political spectrum agree: whatever the problems in our economy, our tech sector is the envy of the worldwhatever the problems in our economy, our tech sector is the envy of the world. Silicon Valley is the most innovative commercial sector on the planet. Whatever else we are doing wrong in this country, we love what Google and Apple and Amazon are doing. The question is why. What made Silicon Valley so successful?

There are clearly a couple of reasons, but one that doesn't get nearly enough attention, I think, is that there was an early change in the way that those companies were organized. It started from the fact that companies like Fairchild and Intel were basically founded by engineers. They were all peers who were working on these problems together. So they didn't have traditional corporate hierarchies. From the beginning they had stock-option plans — which were very unusual at the time — that allowed much more of the company to actually participate in the wealth creation of the company itself. In the long run, this had a great impact on the overall economic ecosystem of Silicon Valley. The mid-level people in these organizations made a couple of million dollars when their companies went public and went on to start their own company or invest in somebody else's. Before long, you had this amazing hotbed of tech development.

We can use that peer-network structure and try to create less top-heavy organizational structures inside of corporations. That is a great weapon to attack the trend towards more income inequality that Stiglitz and others are rightly complaining about.

Farley: In the book you discussed studies that suggest the intelligence of a group can be greater than the sum of its parts, which seems to tie in here.

Johnson: Yes, a big theme of the book in this peer-progressive framework that I'm talking about is the importance of diversity in these systems. This is not the traditional multicultural argument for diversity, which is that we need to support diversity so that we will be more tolerant as a society and will have a more egalitarian civic culture. Those are great values and I celebrate them. But the point that I'm trying to make, that is key to the projects that I'm talking about, is that systems that have more diverse perspectives in them, where more people with different points of view are allowed to participate — whether they are ideological points of view or they are professional points of view from different fields of expertise — those systems tend to perform better than ones composed of like-minded people.

There have been a lot of studies on this, but basically, the secret is that if people who all share the same general perspective get locked into this echo chamber, they can't approach the problem that they are trying to solve from a new angle, because they are all coming at it from the same angle of attack. In a more diverse group, there is more opportunity for sharing and creatively coming up with new solutions, because there are so many different perspectives.

What they have found is that, actually, when you have two groups, one with higher individual IQs but with more like-minded individuals, people who come from the same economic or professional background, and a second group made up of people with lower individual IQs but who come from more diverse backgrounds, when these two groups try to solve a problem, the more diverse group actually does better. The slogan for this is "Diversity trumps ability."

What we want to do is create environments where there are lots of different perspectives that are contributing in some way. Particularly when we bring people into the political process to decide what should be going on in their own communities and neighborhoods, if we extend that platform to include ordinary citizens who are not bureaucrats or people working in City Hall, in the long run, we are going to be much more effective at solving community problems.

Farley: That immediately makes me think of the problem of polarization. There has been a lot of talk in the past few years about the degree to which Americans are increasingly segregating themselves into information bubbles, where they only get their news from one news source and only talk to like-minded people. I'm curious if you agree that this is a serious problem and where you see this headed.

Johnson: I think that, were people to only talk to like-minded people or expose themselves only to like-minded news sources, that would clearly be a problem. It would be a betrayal of those diversity values that I just talked about. What I think is happening right now is a little bit more complicated than that. I do not agree that the modern media landscape has necessarily put people into these bubbles.

There was this really interesting study I talk about in the book where they created what they called the Isolation Index, which measured, within a given form of media, how isolated you were in your bubble and how exposed you were to different viewpoints. They looked at radio and the Web and newspapers and also real-world environments — clubs and offices and family meetings — stuff like that. What they found was that there actually wasn't that much of a difference between the Internet and other forms of media. The higher the Isolation Index you have, the more isolated you are. Actually, media like television was pretty low on the spectrum. People were jumping back and forth between channels, or they were airing opposing viewpoints on Fox, which occasionally happens!

Where they saw a huge amount of isolation was in face-to-face environments, in people's offices or in the clubs that they belonged to or in places where people hung out socially. If you are trying to make people more diverse in their experiences, media does a much better job of it than hanging out somewhere in person. So that is an interesting finding.

Where we really have a problem with polarization is in Congress, which is, again, the result of a lack of diversity due to excessive redistricting and gerrymandering, which has caused the voting blocs to be very homogeneous. Everybody is very right wing or everybody is very left wing or everybody is very African American or everybody is very middle-class white.

Having very homogeneous voting blocs ends up pushing the candidates towards the extremes of their party because they are not fighting for the center, for the independent, or for the crossover voters from the other side — because they don't exist there. So, because of redistricting, you elect much more polarized candidates, and you end up with a much more polarized Congress. It's very harmful. I don't know how to change it. But I think that is the explanation for a lot of the polarization we see in our political figures.

Farley: You do also note the unlikely convergence of Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul, who are each on the fringes of their parties.

Johnson: Yes. I was talking about them mostly to point out that if you believe in the power of peer networks, if you believe in the power of decentralized systems to solve a problem, you don't really have a home in either party. You are not a free-market purist, and you are not a believer in big government institutions. So neither party really speaks to you in this way. In fact, you can look at somebody like the socialist Bernie Sanders, who has made some pretty interesting proposals that fit the peer-progressive agenda. And the libertarian strain in Ron Paul is at least a little bit attractive. It connects some of the points that I am making. So, peer progressives are a little bit homeless. Actually, the best example of that was the SOPA/PIPA Internet thing.

The incredible thing about SOPA/PIPA was that here we are talking about how gridlocked Congress is and how they can't agree on anything — but SOPA/PIPA was a hugely bipartisan initiative. There was an amazing consensus inside the Senate and Congress that these bills attempting to control the Internet in a top-down way were a bad idea. When the backlash came and Wikipedia did its blackout and the protests rolled across the Internet, the legislation collapsed. There was this crazy feeling in the media. You could see that they were trying to score it the way they normally do. You know, This is a blow for the Democrats, or, The Republicans won one today. But they couldn't. It was like they didn't know where the attack had come from. They were like, Who are these people?

I started calling it the Silent Nerd Majority. There turned out to be all these people online who believed, fundamentally, that the Internet is one of the greatest things that has happened to us in 20 or 30 years, and part of the Internet's key power comes from the fact that it is not controlled by corporations or by governmentspart of the Internet's key power comes from the fact that it is not controlled by corporations or by governments. That lack of control is worth fighting for.

Farley: Speaking of lack of control, you also wrote about the Occupy movement, which very deliberately avoided control or authority or, really, organization.

Johnson: The Occupy movement literally started as a hashtag on Twitter, so there is no doubt it was engendered by the power of decentralized networking. And it did a great job of expressing the outrage of the 99 percent toward the one percent and popularizing that idea, which has had an impact, regardless of what you think of their interpretation of the world. But it is also true that it has not proposed a lot of solutions.

Farley: Yes, the Occupy movement deliberately avoided proposing solutions and deliberately avoided electing leaders.

Yes, I think some people looked at that and said, That kind of decentralized system is going to be limited because, while they don't necessarily need leaders, we do need to have solutions.

Farley: Whereas the Tea Party movement organized very successfully to elect people to Congress.

Johnson: Right. What I have tried to do in the book is say, Look. Occupy is really interesting. But there are all these other peer networks out there that actually are proposing solutions. One example, and I think one of the best places where this is happening, is on the local level. You can see all these interesting projects, whether it is [New York City's telephone service] 311, which I talk about in the book, or the many other hyperlocal initiatives where people are proposing solutions to problems in their neighborhoods.

Actually, since I finished writing the book, I have come across this great story from Portland I'm going to write about at some point about city repair and intersection repair. A bunch of years ago a guy named Mark Lakeman, I think it is, was living in residential Portland. He had this intersection near his house, just a boring old intersection where nothing ever happened except cars drove through it. It was just nothing. He went on a trip and he realized that throughout human history, cross streets have been where civic culture happens.

He thought, how can I reinvent this intersection? He got all these people in the neighborhood to agree to paint these amazing, crazy images on the intersection. Initially the city didn't want to let him do it. They said that the intersection was public space, so no one can use it, which is a great Orwellian line. Finally, I guess, the mayor came around, and they created this thing: Share-It-Square. And then they built little lending libraries around it, and they built a 24-hour, solar-powered tea station. Then other people started painting their intersections.

Now it has become this thing. It has spread to Seattle and to the Bay Area and to New York, I think. It's a classic example of a bottom-up community that says, Hey, we want to build something here and make something different that's going to enhance our community. We want the government to be able to improve it, but we don't necessarily need the government to help us. It's not a private-sector solution. It's not like we want Starbucks to come and put up a coffee shop on our intersection. We want it to be this space that we define.

In some ways, I would like to point to this as much as I point to Occupy. These peer networks can be just as good at cleaning streets and making something new and actually proposing solutions as they are at just occupying them and protesting things.

Books mentioned in this post

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2 Responses to "Steven Johnson: The Interview"

    Outside the Box October 4th, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Very interesting stuff... I think you are slightly confused about "libertarianism" - it is about dealing with people peacefully rather than through violence and aggression, and as such is perfectly compatible with non-market networks - but that's really just a labeling issue. I love the emphasis on bottom up, spontaneous organization, emergent systems and those other good chaos theory concepts.

    The interesting thing for you, Mr Johnson, I think will be to apply your theory to the biggest non-peer network in the world: the state. I get the feeling you haven't thought about the application of your concepts at that level*, because you talk here in some depth about problems in the political sphere like gerrymandering and the tendency for politicians to end up on the fringes, and you say "I don't know how to solve it", when there is an obvious solution: get rid of it all. The state is exactly what your work suggests against: a huge, top-down, bureaucracy-riddled hierarchy that attempts to solve local problems at the national level. The only political system that is consistent with your research is a purely spontaneous, bottom-up one, and that is fundamentally incompatible with the state. You're looking for a zero-state society.

    *Caveat: I have not read your books. Perhaps you address these topics there.

    replica watches June 8th, 2013 at 1:34 am

    "libertarianism",can you achieve it!

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