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Steven Johnson And A Better Future

From Wikipedia to Kickstarter, we’ll look at the growing power of collaboration as a source of hope and progress with Steven Johnson, author of “Future Perfect.”

The internet in 1972 (photo illustration Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

The internet in 1972 (photo illustration Alex Kingsbury/WBUR)

American politics can look hopeless.  Steven Johnson says hang on.  There’s a new way coming.  And it’s loaded with optimism and hope.  With progress.  Johnson writes about technology and society.  He’s looking at the networked life of the Internet and saying that as a model, it’s just getting started in changing our shared lives.

What markets won’t do and governments won’t do, he says, networked citizens are taking on.  Peers, empowered by connectivity, moving beyond  Left and Right, looking for solutions.

This hour, On Point:  future perfect, with Steven Johnson.

-Tom Ashbrook


Steven Johnson, author of the new book Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age.

From Tom’s Reading List

Wall Street Journal “I teach at an engineering school, and in one of my courses—a kind of overview of Western civilization for freshmen—I make my students read John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. At one point, the young president exhorts Americans to seek the end of “tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” When I asked my students recently if they thought these goals were realistic or just pipe dreams, all 24 went with pipe dreams.”

New York Times “Embracing semiotics came with certain costs. In my own case, I spent most of my mid-20s detangling my prose style. (It got younger as I got older.) I now spend more time learning from the insights of science than deconstructing its truth claims. I slowly killed off the desire to impress with willful obscurity.”

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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    Some time ago, on another website, I posted the following idea for an on going collaborative money making project.
    The idea was to let participants write songs as a group. For this example I am talking about music only.
    First : You will need a program with a friendly interface with a behind the scene neural network(s) that generate random notes.
    Second: Users then vote on the sound string they hear as pleasing or not.
    Third : Users vote on the time value of the notes for each note in the string after hearing it, of course.
    Fourth : The program then generates these notes via various instrument(s) combinations.
    Fifth : The neural network engine is constantly learning what songs users produce and like and these are compared against known popular and successful songs. By the process of reinforcement ( I.E. in the net ) sound strings are built.
    Sixth Once a predetermined total song time is reached the process is ended and the participants in the project become collective copyright owners to the music.
    Seventh : Here is the most important part. The company acquires talented people to put words to the song and then places the song in the hands of band that will record it, etc..

    Note 1: If millions of users participate and create the music themselves they will have created music THAT THEY WILL BUY AND THAT OTHER PEOPLE WILL BUY. Why ? The law of large numbers says so. ( I leave it to the reader to convince themselves of this fact. )

    Note 2 : I have written a program that will write EVERY song that could EVER be written, of a given length, using a program I wrote that acts as a “ state machine “ / Turing Machine. ( No joke. ) I am amazed at the number of people that don’t get it ! Given enough time and processing power, my program will write all the songs of Mozart, List, Lennon and McCartney , Gershwin , etc.. ( By the way, my program could be generalized to write every math equation or chemical equation or ( insert any field of knowledge with a fixed set of symbols and operators here ! ) ). Not only am I amazed at the number of disinterested or brain dead people out there, I am quite upset at the cost of bringing such a project to the fore for an “ everyday” person, such as myself ! I have spoken with some attorneys and have
    speculated that to patent my works, the way they would need to be, would probably cost millions of dollars ( due to reasons that I won’t go into ).

    _Of the 7, or so, billion people on this planet, only a limited number of them can truly be said to understand the possibilities of the computer in front of them ! What is worse is that there are a sufficient number of rich and powerful people that hope that such ideas never become a reality, as these inventions would overthrow conventional pecking orders ! They will lose in the end ! You can’t kill ideas !

    • Wm_James_from_Missouri

      _Please don’t quote me “The Infinite monkey theorem” or the “The Total Library” concept by Borges, see :


      _I am well aware.

    • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

      Your enthusiasm is world class but TMI.

      Here are three challenges for you:

      1) How do you address information overload? It is one of your greatest challenges: just as the internet is full of web trash, you may produce millions of songs, but you’ll have to sort through them all. Your collective may lack the patience to engage.

      2) In addition, your collective will have one form of taste or another, but there is no shortage of bad taste, so your collaboration can produce brilliant masterpieces or artistically impoverished pieces that should not be inflicted upon the airwaves.

      3) Are we now replacing artists with software? What is then left for humans to do? Skynet lives!!!

      An intriguing and challenging idea indeed!!!

      • Wm_James_from_Missouri

        There is never too much information just too little time to process it all ) :

        _Of course I exaggerate when I talk about millions of participants ( although maybe not ). More like tens of thousands or thousands of devoted contributors. As for the collective taste of these “would be” artist, well, I hear much music today that I find questionable but who am I to judge the likes of others ?

        _We are and will replace artist, in fact, everyone, with software someday, whether on a desktop or within a human brain. Why not; it will make us better at everything we do !

        _ PS : The idea I stated above is not the program that I wrote. I think mine is better ! If I can’t find a buyer or interested parties here in the States I may “will” it to my children or find a buyer overseas. I don’t want to do this but as I have said above am quite disheartened and amazed at the lack of understanding of the potential of such a product. If worked to its’ fullest, in all its’ possible forms, I truly believe it to be worth 100’s of billions ( or more ) of dollars ! I should state the best ideas are still in my head and waiting for that signal that will make them a reality.

        _PSS. MadMark, I have heard you call in to Tom’s show and read many of your comments, and respect your views. The statements above are not about bluster. I really mean what I said and believe what I said. Your feedback is welcome !
        _ PSSS. You may have noticed that I misspell a lot, well, that’s because I HATE spelling and I s*uk at it. I’m not very good at catching my typos either : ) ( List = Liszt)

  • Shag_Wevera

    There is an important lesson here.  We are collectively much smarter and stronger than any “rugged individual”.

    • Michele

       Right, we are all not islands unto ourselves.  Our infrastructure is a prime example of cooperation. All successful societies throughout history have collaboration as their foundation even if their goals were not egalitarian. 

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    With the right tools, knowledge and skills, an inspired individual with a vision can do great things – Groups of inspired people joining together can change the course of rivers.

    Let not dark visions of today dampen our passion to rise above the challenge. Hubris is one thing and magical thinking is too often its bedfellow trapped in ideology, but tenacious enthusiasm…

    Tenacious enthusiasm is a completely different story.  It is the spark of dreams: the foundation of achievement.

    Dare to dream: ‘I didn’t know it was impossible until after I did it.’

    Keep the magic alive!!!

    • Steve__T

      by Steve__T

      Wishes and dreams are apart from reality,
      but aren’t our dreams brought to reality through our desires?
      Our dreams, when made real come from more than wishes that are insubstantial.
      Work, hard work is what it is, that makes the change, and that’s the Magic!
      The secret is to do. A man can think and think, but to do, is to awaken form his dreams. And work for a reality of his dreams and wishes to come true.

  • Ellen Dibble

     Perhaps some look at social networking as extrapolating the idea of groupies, those who feel “in” with each other.  I don’t.  I notice there are people across languages, across oceans, actively fishing for links.  Or I use mistypings to take a look-see at this Facebook page or that, and things go into megaspread.  I saw a cartoon of an Islamic face out of Pakistan, and after a few months, the person accepted a friend request.  She is still mute, but I see lots of HER friends in the search bar, or they are suggested friends, and on my visiting THEIR websites, I find a Whole Other World, and those I visit do indeed visit back.  DAILY.  An example is someone at the far southeastern tip of  India.  Another one from a radically different culture, with no other real ways to see outside, except maybe movies?, but with he and his friends Mighty Curious.  Right on top of my niece who misses nothing I post.  Plenty from behind what had been the Iron Curtain; by thousands.  Another “source” takes the lead there, but they seem to view me as an outlier they like to touch down for a look-see.  Another is out of Taiwan, with a small group of friends, all aged about 18 to 25, a few with young children, either in technical community college, or working at the equivalent of Best Buy or Walmart.  She is always right there.  Yes, I play to her, and I know how China feels about Taiwan, and if I she and I were friends, outside China’s Google controls, maybe I would have as many Wang and Li people visiting as I have Mohammed and Ahmeds.  Lately, Bing translator does help somewhat with the Chinese script.  Urdu and Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew — all of it is beginning to come into reach, especially if you use photos and art.  If you have one Israeli coming round, you are likely to soon have a global fountain of Jewish names on hand.  Some are also sources, but many just listen; I think as a single, unattached individual, I can be more bold.  But this is how it seems to me.  I find that online, unlike at the mall or the tea shops, those who disagree might be right there, up close and personal, intently interested in the points of dispute as well as those not.  Whether political parties or religious antagonisms, the net is bristling with people trying to sort things out, IMHO.

    • geraldfnord

      Pardon, but would you be the good Seattle-area cartoonist of that name?

  • geraldfnord

    Mr Johnson is sadly mistaken: any fool who’s read Ayn Rand can tell you that all good things flow from the creative minds of lone wolves with strong jaws and a penchant for rapey sex and monologues.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    when a business gets robbed, or catches fire, or is hit by a hurricane or just needs to dial 911 let’s see how they do it themselves.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    This is a good example of one of the things that government is supposed to do–create opportunity and set it free.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

      Socialize development costs and privatize profits.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         And tax profits at a reasonable level–yes.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    Kickstarter was looking a new niche market to make money in. End of story. They collect pretty good fees for what they do.

  • Scott B

    It’s true that no one owns the net, and the various things mentioned that go along with it, but that’s not for lack of trying from private businesses. Microsoft was losing it’s share since it came on late to the browser world and tried to corner it by making it’s own version of an open system with “Open X”; many sites require various plug-ins  like Java (Sun Microsystems), Open X (Microsoft,  or  Flash (Adobe) which Apple refuses to use as it tries to drive the Net to Apple’s future vision of it; some apps and programs are deliberately made to conflict with other so you have to choose one product over the other. 

  • J__o__h__n

    Aren’t government studies a more reliable source than Wikipedia?

  • TinaWrites

    Didn’t anyone graduate from high school?!!!  There are DIFFERENT TYPES OF GOVERNMENTS!!!  OUR type of government is REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY!!!  The GOOD thing about OUR GOVERNMENT is that we, the citizens, GET TO VOTE!!!

    That is entirely different than the stock holders getting to vote their proxy votes, or independent businessmen making all the decisions!

    DO NOT DOWNGRADE OUR GOVERNMENT:  IT IS OUR BLESSING!!  It is WHY so many people are concerned that it is now being BOUGHT, especially after Citizens United, the Supreme Court judges notwithstanding!!!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Wikipedia is a good example of the advantages and the flaws in “crowd sourcing.”  It can do acceptable work on a variety of subjects, but it is also subject to being pulled off track by a few cranks.

    • Michele

      How does that differ from our democracy?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Why would any candidate who wants to win accept this financing system?

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Collaboration is great but when you have dedicated interests that are collaborating against other interests, how do you make this model work: for this reason I fail to see how markets can solve social problems when they are not governed to prevent them from running amok like farmers slaughtering the milk cows to make up for a loss in production. An unrestrained Wall Street has, and arguably still is, destroying this country. Oil futures trading is an example – as the economy starts rebounding and demand for oil grows, speculation drives the price up, sapping expendable income from the economy thus shutting the rebound. The Wallmartization of America has destroyed product quality.

  • ttajtt

    All They or Them would have to do, is Pull the Plug.   Just like burning of books, records, and now power out for the lower +47%, A.K.A. little people.  come pick your color red or blue.    Rep. or Dem… get your mark.   Obama started with someones blank check leftovers… where 12 years ago “NO DEBT”.  Thats why the republicans. what a republican. controlled congress…more debt bailing out to the Rich.    

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    All governments (any power structure) devolve into oligarchies – which is why anarchy has never had a chance.

  • Call_Me_Missouri

    The only way we solve the climate change problem is to create regulations making it mandatory that every home in this country participate in the solution.  Regulations create Markets…  albeit artificially, but it would be created none the less.  Until it’s mandatory that everyone put a solar panel or small wind turbine on their house to create their own electricity, these clean energy solutions are going to continue to go no where.
    People are sick of investing government funds in corporate projects that are ultimately used to suck even more resources out of tax payers.  I am not interested in the government funding a company that erects a wind farm off the coast, then sells the electricity back to the tax payers that paid for the infrastructure.

    No more corporate bail outs…  How about some Individual Bail Outs…  like lowering our electric bills by installing solar panels on our homes…  lowering our mortgages by reducing the principal on loans…  you get the gist.

    • sickofthechit

       First and best payoff is energy conservation in the form of better weatherproofing, energy controls and behavioral changes.

      • Call_Me_Missouri

        Who’s going to pay for that?  And why would they bother if it is not mandatory to do it?

        The cost of those renovations is more expensive than the amount of energy savings.

      • turtle1234

        On the point of solar energy going nowhere, if we invest in innovation to advance solar or wind technologies it will be a lot more effective than depending on fossil fuels which will eventually run out.  I don’t know the exact figures, but the sun, our main source of energy provides enough light in one square milke to illuminate a large city for a long time, if we learn to effectively harvest solar or wind power it may ultimately help to wean us off our dependence on oil coal and other fossil fuels.

  • Elizabeth_BO

    We may hope and be optimistic as much as we want but for millions of people those words mean nothing because they are left out of the political decision making. 
    And our political system seems to gravitate to serve the interests of fewer and fewer individuals (groups).
    The internet is just a tool to disseminate information but the information fed into it is easily controlled and manipulated.
    Personally I don’t see a “future perfect”.  
    Humanity cannot solve its present problems with  positive futuristic ideas.  Haven’t we had enough of them – Garden of Eden, Plato’s ideas, Sir Thomas Moore, Charles Furier, Karl Marx, etc. -.  The effect of these ideas were incrementally positive for a certain group of people. 
    The bottom line is that we, the people, don’t get along very well and that seems to be a given and a driver of our future which may include calamities of all kinds (just like the past has been and the present is). 
    Progress exists, there has been progress but it came with costs that were detrimental to many others.  And if my/our progress causes suffering to others what is the point of it?

  • turtle1234

    One of the things I see the internet doing is breaking down barriers.  Anyone in any country will have the equal opportunity to be heard.  Regadless of what country you live in unless you are censored by the government will have the opportunity to tell their side of the story.  This includes countries like iraq and afganistan where most of the information available to the west comes from the mainstream media.

  • JimSurkamp

    the caller with the startup in chicago made some important modifications to mr johnson’s vision. social networks run out of gas because inevitably decisions need to be made. occupy wall street can’t make a decision beyond a good slogan and getting arrested a lot. robert noyce of intel once said he learned that in the company’s early stages “not everyone can have a veto.” social networks are a method of pooling thinking but government serves to referee conflicting visions for the common good IF it is good gov’t

  • http://profiles.google.com/hdkellogg Howard Kellogg

    Don’t forget crowd-source pothole detecting smartphone apps. those are taking the 3-1-1 concept much further.

  • Outside_of_the_Box

    Sorry but technology isn’t going to magically stand up to the special interests that really pull the strings in the US. The way it’s designed, no candidate can run and win with a platform of going after the special interests and reforming the system from the top down. It just can’t happen. So tell me, how are we ever going to change on the big ticket issues, like the MIC, subsidies to allies like Israel and Energy, pork barrel spending, bailouts to banks, warring foreign policy, bailouts for major industries, corporate and wealthy individual loopholes on taxes, arms bullying, election financing, etc etc? Meanwhile, the people, and the things that really matter to the people, are barely an afterthought in the Elite’s minds. Healthcare, Education, Housing, Jobs, Social Security, Infrastructure, Services, Hospitals, Welfare, Environment…..In a system that was actually for the people, by the people, all of these things would be front and center. What the US has, isn’t democracy. It is the illusion of democracy, while the Elite does what it pleases.

  • BrentMiller2

    I just wrote a paper for my college English class about making third parties more relevant in the national debate. I feel that the two main parties have monopolized the political spectrum, and would love to see an ideological anti trust suit brought against them. The three main points I brought up in my paper were: range voting, where you score candidates on a range, so it’s no longer all or nothing with your vote; electoral votes given by the district’s they represent, where each congressional districts electoral vote goes to who wins the district, and the overall state popular vote would win the senate votes; and making voting a civic duty like jury duty. Essentially making voting mandatory like they do in Australia. Even if they select no preference, the opportunity should be mandatory.

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