A Blog of Book Reviews

These book reviews are also featured on my blog, Scorpion Stalking Duck. Here they are distilled out of the rest of the posts, kind of like that scum at the top of a pot full of boiled potatoes. The title of this blog - and the quote above - come from the forward of Hillaire Belloc's book, The Path to Rome.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age

Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, by Steven Johnson.

This was published as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer review on January 21, 2013.  

It was several months late.  

They haven't asked me to review any books since then.

Mr. Johnson has a lot of good ideas in this book. Unfortunately, he advocates that these ideas should be in some way incorporated into government programs. I cannot agree with him on this; the only thing our government(at the federal level) has demonstrated any proficiency in is killing people and blowing things up. Even these functions have been failing us lately, as the withering conflicts in the Middle East and Africa continue into the second term of our Nobel Peace Prize-toting president. But I digress.

Mr. Johnson begins by describing two very effective systems which show how progress is made in a random, somewhat uncontrolled fashion. Often these 'grassroot' systems, when compared with the governmental or bureaucratic solution, clearly demonstrate their superiority. One example is a comparison of the railroad systems of France and Germany during the 19th century. France had a 'centralized' railway, where all paths led through Paris. Germany, on the other hand, had a combination of railways which went hither and yon, forming more of a net covering Germany. France's system looked more like spokes of a wheel, with Paris as the center. When these countries went to war, the Germans were able to efficiently transport more soldiers and material via the network of railways. This gave them a strategic advantage.

The other example is the internet. With multiple pathways available, information can pass with greater safety as well as efficiency. The ‘net,’ or the ‘World Wide Web’ has enabled us to communicate more freely than before, and with almost no cost. Of course we don’t always use this gift wisely. I recently saw a comment on facebook which pointed out that we now have a device that fits in our pocket, and can communicate with anyone or anything in the world - yet we typically use it for looking at pictures of grumpy cats and getting into arguments with total strangers. Once again I digress.

So after presenting these examples of progress which comes from the free market, Johnson seems to switch and start making the argument that these programs should be incorporated into the government bureaucracy. He introduces the website ‘Kickstarter.‘ Kickstarter assists artists, craftsmen, musicians, and other creative people who need financial support for their particular project. For example, when I clicked on the web page this morning, it featured a video of an attractive young woman who wants to create an instructional video series on woodworking. People can pledge money for a project, but - here’s the kicker - they only are responsible for putting up the money if the project reaches its pledge target. The nice thing about this project is that people can directly support projects they like, and typically they receive some sort of recognition in the completed project. With the young woodworking woman, she would give the largest donors some of the furniture she made herself.

Please understand that I have nothing against Kickstarter; in fact, I wish Kickstarter would replace the National Endowment for the Arts(NEA). This is especially true when Johnson points out that Kickstarter has financed more creative projects than the NEA has. Johnson declares that Kickstarter has financed more than $200 million so far, while the budget for the NEA is $154 million. Consider that a lot of that money does not even reach the artists. Personally, I would prefer to see artists funded by the NEA - especially those who specialize in offending Catholicism - get their funding from somewhere other than my taxes. I suspect they would find adequate support through Kickstarter.

Here is where Johnson completely loses me, when he states that the government should set up its own Kickstarter. This is just a few pages after he mentions that Kickstarter provides more money than the NEA:

“Yet there is nothing in Kickstarter’s DNA that says it has to be a for-profit company. We could easily decide as a society that the $200 million Kickstarter is disbursing is not nearly enough to support the kind of creative innovation we need in our culture. At which point, the government could create its own Kickstarter and promote it via its own channels, or it could use taxpayer dollars as matching grants to amplify the effect of each Kickstarter donation. This, in the nutshell, is the difference between a libertarian and a peer-progressive approach. The libertarian looks at Kickstarter and says, “Great, now we can do away with the NEA.” The peer progressive says, “Now we can made the NEA look more like Kickstarter.” (pages 46-47)

So I guess I’m a libertarian, I thought, as I threw the book at a wall.....

Despite my criticisms, there is still a lot to be said for this book. Steven Johnson challenged my thinking on a lot of subjects in his book. While I do not agree with everything he said, I still think the book has merit because it urged me to think of how individuals still have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to our culture.

Addendum: I wrote a lot of comments in this book, and some of them I think were worth adding to this review. Remember, these are my comments, not quotes from the book:

‘shades of the pragmatometer from c.s. lewis that hideous strength’ p. 38

‘what about Hurricane Sandy?’ I was reading this book while Sandy was pounding New York. p. 66

‘do you really, honestly think people give a rat’s a$$? really!’ p.74

‘consider arab spring/sharia spanish revolution occupy wall street as a crime scene’ p. 106 

‘wait. isn’t this what he wants out of the net?’ next to this quote: “If we have too much of anything on the Internet, it’s engagement: too many minds pushing the platform in new directions, too many voices arguing about the social and economic consequences of those changes.” p.117

‘BS. all influence ends up being sold/bought’ p. 171

‘dumbing down’ pp. 172, 173

‘no. it would morph back into politicians. do you really think politicians will give up this fiscal largesse?’ p. 176

‘yes. innovation started here but now all is MADE IN CHINA’ p. 185

‘on the other hand, if you really stink at teaching, you should die on the vine’ p. 191

‘note he doesn’t have an example of this where the EOB (employee-owned business) is applied to teaching!’ p.192

‘so facebook’s stock is WHERE today?’ p. 195

‘what about the writers for huffington post who got stiffed when she sold it?’ inside back cover