Johnson claims he is not a "net utopian." He says he’s not someone who believes any problem can be solved by "just throwing Facebook at it." And his book offers many sober warnings that peer progressives don't believe that everything can be solved through loose, informal decentralized organizations of individuals. The Internet isn't a panacea, he states, but it is a powerful role model for solving problems. At bottom, however, the book and the author himself really seem to be of two minds on the topic—because Johnson really does want us to believe in peer progressivism. His book concludes with what amounts to a call to arms: “We know a whole world of pressing social problems can be improved by peer networks, digital or analog, local or global, animated by those core values of participation, equality, and diversity. That is a future worth looking forward to. Now is the time to invent it.” I’d say that Johnson’s a bit more of a utopian than he’s like to admit.
Future Perfect, like so many other books that either evangelize or renounce the glories of our Internet age, tells stories that reinterpret narratives of our time. The reinterpretations are designed to line up contemporary narratives with a particular author’s own conceptual framework. You have to watch out for these often masterful verbal tricks, however, because distortions may and do occur in this process of reinterpretation. One would not think, for example, that peer-to-peer networks had anything to do with Chesley Sullenberger's spectacular landing of an Airbus A320 on the Hudson in January 2009. Hailed as a national hero for saving the lives of all the passengers and crew after the plane collided with a flock of Canadian geese, Sullenberger was feted from coast to coast for weeks and even landed himself an invitation to President Obama’s inauguration.
But Steven Johnson sees Sullenberger’s story from a different perspective. It is not just the story of an experienced and highly skillful pilot making fast decisions and executing expert actions to avert a fatal crash. The feat was not his accomplishment alone by any means. Instead it was really a feat of collective intelligence and foresight on the part of many groups and organizations. Here's how Johnson retells the story:
“There is no denying Sullenberger’s achievement that day, but the fact is, he was supported by a long history of decisions made by thousands of people over the preceding decades, all of which set up the conditions that made that perfect landing possible. A lesser pilot could have still failed catastrophically in that situation but as good as Sullenberger was, he was not working alone. . . . The plane survived because a dense network of human intelligence had built a plane designed to withstand exactly this kind of failure. It was an individual triumph, to be sure, but it was also, crucially, a triumph of collectively shared ideas, corporate innovation, state-funded research, and government regulation.”
Somehow the heroic Chesley Sullenberg gets lost in the process of this hymn to peer progressivism. What Johnson is trying to say is that progress comes from collective efforts, or, in terms of one of buzzwords of the day, "collective intelligence.” And it’s not that he’s technically wrong in the way that he weaves the narrative. But it is a distinctly different interpretation of the whole incident and the mythology that grew up around "The Miracle on the Hudson." It is said that if all you have is a hammer, everything will look like a nail. In Future Perfect, all Johnson has for a role model is the Internet, and as a result everything tends to look like a peer-to-peer network and all progress, is, we are led to believe, the result of “collective intelligence.” Such is the new narrative. But one must ask, in our effort to see everything as connected to everything else, are we losing sight of individual achievement? Or are those of us who value individual achievement just clinging to some outmoded mythology that must make way for all things produced via “collective intelligence”? Perhaps we should consult the wisdom of the crowd about this . . .