Emergence was not explicitly a book about politics or social movements, but I wanted to end it with a hint of those possibilities. And so the final pages included a description of the Seattle anti-WTO protests that, reading them today, could just as easily have been a description of Occupy Wall Street:
It’s almost impossible to think of another political movement that generated as much public attention without producing a genuine leader—a Jesse Jackson or Cesar Chavez—if only for the benefit of the television cameras. The images that we associate with the protests are never those of an adoring crowd raising its fists in solidarity with an impassioned speaker on a podium. That is the iconography of an earlier model of protest. What we see again and again with the new wave are images of disparate groups: satirical puppets, black-clad anarchists, sit-ins and performance art—but no leaders. To old-school progressives, the protesters appeared to be headless, out of control, a swarm of small causes with no organizing principle—and to a certain extent they’re right in their assessment. What they fail to recognize is that there can be power and intelligence in a swarm, and if you’re trying to do battle against a distributed network like global capitalism, you’re better off becoming a distributed network yourself.In the months and years that followed the publication of Emergence, a number of readers took these political undertones and amplified them. (This is one of the beautiful things about writing books, particularly idea books: your readers are free to take your ideas and push them in all sorts of directions you never anticipated.) First Joi Ito—now, wonderfully, the head of MIT’s Media Lab—published some online musings on what he called “emergent democracy”-- asking a series of probing questions about how these principles could be applied to civic life. In Brazil, a number of city leaders used the book to refine the already innovative systems of participatory budgeting that they had pioneered a decade before. Emergence inspired some of the early crowdfunding strategies employed by the Howard Dean campaign in 2004.
And so, over time, a book I had written about social insects and video games and software algorithms started to feel more and more like a book about politics that happened to employ an extended metaphor of social insects and video games and software algorithms. And the more I looked, the more examples I found of this new view of social change in the world, and not just in the decentralized protest movements of Occupy and Arab Spring. All around me, it seemed, people were using decentralized peer networks to solve problems -- and not just express their outrage -- sometimes using software and computer networks, and sometimes not. You could see it at work in New York’s 311 service; in Kickstarter; in the prize-backed challenges of the Obama administration; in Beth Noveck’s peer-to-patent system; in the growing adoption of participatory budgeting around the world; in new forms of corporate organization that were less hierarchical in nature.
The funny thing about this new movement was that it didn’t readily fit the categories of either political party in the US. Because it favored decentralized, bottom-up solutions, it broke with the statist, Big Government solutions of the Left, and yet it looked nothing like the free market religion of the libertarian Right. And it wasn’t the moderate’s safe middle ground between those two poles. It was something altogether new. And more that that, it was a political worldview with a real track record of practical success. In an age of great disillusionment with current institutions, I thought, here were individuals and groups that could inspire us, in part because they had attached themselves to a new kind of institution, more network than hierarchy--more like the Internet itself than the older models of Big Capital or Big Government.
And so I wrote a book about that movement, a book that hopefully conveys some of the promise and possibility—and even outright optimism—that these new ideas carry. It’s called Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age. In the U.S., it will be released September 18th; in the UK, October 4th. (Other foreign editions will roll out next year.) I hope you’ll check it out, and, like the readers of Emergence so many years ago, you’ll take the ideas and run with them—as long as I can follow along.