The internet brought forth an urban renaissance

CEO Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp created a site that offers customer reviews of everything from restaurants and bars to dry cleaners and nail salons around the world.
CEO Jeremy Stoppelman of Yelp created a site that offers customer reviews of everything from restaurants and bars to dry cleaners and nail salons around the world.
Image: AP Photo / Bebeto Matthews
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What is the future of progress? Many believe we are entering a new Dark Age of economic stagnation, having exhausted the frontiers of innovation and progress, held back by a broken and dysfunctional political system.

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Steven Johnson fundamentally disagrees. His latest bookFuture Perfect, is an eloquent and necessary counterpoint to our prophets of doom. He argues that the rise of new technology is leading to new and more effective models of social, political and economic progress.

Johnson is the author of seven bestselling books, includingEverything Bad Is Good for You, Where Good Ideas Come FromThe Invention of Air, and The Ghost Map. He is an entrepreneur and founder of the website, which he sold to AOL. Walter Isaacson, head of the Aspen Institute and author of the book Steve Jobs, has dubbed Johnson the “Darwin of technology.” Johnson has long been interested in the intersection of cities and innovation. We had a chance recently to sit down together in Toronto and discuss the intersection of place and progress.

Let’s start off with the big picture: Obviously, technology matters to our future progress, but there are those who say that new technologies like the Internet are leading to the eclipse of place. What do you think is the role of place in innovation and progress, especially looking toward the future?

It’s an interesting thing about technology and the city: When people first started speculating on the impact that the Internet would have on urban life, the default assumption was that networks were fundamentally in conflict with density. Once we were all able to telecommute to our offices, and order indie records and obscure books from Amazon, there would be less of a need to crowd together in big cities. In a sense, the Internet was going to be a continuation of the automobile: a force for geographic decentralization.

But the exact opposite happened: we’ve seen a return to the city during the Internet age, and in fact, the core innovations that are driving the Internet age are coming out of big cities—the Bay Area, Seattle, and increasingly New York. So why did that happen? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Internet (and mobile, location-aware devices) are disproportionately useful in large cities. They can help you discover all the interesting people, events, and places that are so often invisible to you in a vast city. In small towns, you don’t need that extra layer of navigation and discovery to make sense of the place.

You quote Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “City processes in real life are too complex to be routine, too particularized for application as abstractions. They are always made up of interactions among unique combinations of particulars, and there is no substitute for knowing the particulars.” How does this core idea relate to our future political, technological and economic progress?

In Future Perfect, I am trying to map out what I see as an emerging political worldview—what I’m calling “peer progressivism”—influenced by the success of the Internet, but not naively cyber-utopian. And the core organization in that movement is the “peer network”: decentralized, diverse groups collaborating on solving problems without traditional economic incentives. So Jacobs’ vision of how neighborhoods work—which has shaped my thinking about just about everything since I first read her in grad school—is central to the peer progressive approach.

When you’re trying to figure out how to make a neighborhood work better, the best resource is to draw upon on the people who actually live in the neighborhood. They are the true local experts. And that’s what we are seeing right now in about a thousand new urban start-ups and initiatives: whether it’s in the 311 services around the country, or SeeClickFix, or Neighborland. All these projects are about solving problems (or seizing opportunities) from below, not above. They are very much the descendants of Jacobs’ decentralized critique of Robert Moses.

It’s healthy to engage in a little utopian thinking every now and then—if only to give us something to steer towards.

You cite Marian Zeitlin’s research on “positive deviants” who are able to overcome the constraints of communities in important and positive ways. Where do positive deviants come from? How do they effect progress? How can we generate more of them?

I wrote about Zeitlin’s research because it also tries to fix problems from below, rather than above. The idea is that in any community, no matter how troubled, there are people who have figured out strategies for success within the limitations of the environment, whether the environment is the rice-paddies of Vietnam, or an inner-city school system. These are the “positive deviants”—the people who deviate from the norm in a good way. The idea is that our social institutions — whether they are government agencies or philanthropic organizations—should seek out those positive deviants and help amplify their strategies throughout the community. This is, for instance, what the Obama administration was trying to do with Race to the Top in education: they identified all the cases of positive deviance in public school systems around the country, figured out what made them so successful, and then built the competition of Race to the Top to encourage more of those strategies.

You write about the roles of Kickstarter and Wikipedia as well as activist organizations like MoveOn, the Occupy movement, and the Arab Spring. What is their common thread? While the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring made use of new technology, they were rooted in real places.

They all share a peer network structure at their core. In other words, they are defined by a network of collaboration, and not by their leaders. In some cases—particularly Occupy—they began with a virtual network that built enough critical mass than it crossed over into the physical world. Remember Occupy started with a hashtag on Twitter (#occupywallstreet); it took several months for people finally to say, “Hey, maybe we should actually occupy Wall Street.”

You have great faith that our broken and dysfunctional political systems can be turned round, in the ideas of a “liquid democracy” and the “peer progressives.” How do you see this transformation happening? How long will it take?

I guess I would say I have a little more faith in the ability of the peer progressives to solve problems working outside the political system than I do in the ability of the political system to fix itself. I think we are going to see—in fact I think we are already seeing—a great renaissance of civic participation on a local level, thanks to the many organizations and experiments I talk about in the book. Our national politics in the U.S. is more complicated. It will not improve without fundamental changes to the campaign finance system, for instance. I write about some potential solutions to that system in the book—all of which involve peer progressive values—but I think we are a long way from implementing them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having the conversation about what the solutions should be. Otherwise, you fall into this fatalistic position where nothing can ever improve, which is the easiest way to guarantee that nothing will improve. It’s healthy to engage in a little utopian thinking every now and then—if only to give us something to steer towards.

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