Can peer progressives change institutions? | MIT Center for Civic Media

Can peer progressives change institutions?

 Matt Stempeck

Last night the Center for Civic Media brought together Steven Johnson, Yochai Benkler, Susan Crawford and Lawrence Lessig to discuss Johnson’s new book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked World. Substantively they centred on the issue of whether the success of peer-networked movements can be framed as a political ideology that can bring together the collective energies behind the likes of Wikipedia, Linux, Kiva and Kickstarter and build a movement for progressively minded change.

Johnson’s opinion is, of course, that we can, and he found an enthusiastic backer in Benkler, who pointed to the idea (well established in his own work) that collaborative networks show that we have already begun to move beyond the two dominant modes of organization in the twentieth century: top-down rational organization by government and a rational actor model in which government relies on incentive structures for citizens that follow market principles.

Crawford and Lessig were less sanguine, for subtly different reasons, although both their critiques raised the important question of how the type of innovative, peer-networked change that is sprouting up from entrepreneurs and individuals can interface with existing institutions. When we’re talking about politics, this interface is surely the critical – and is most cases missing – link, and one that all four speakers acknowledged in different ways.

The first current (and worryingly popular) scenario is that these peer networks supplant the old institutions: several of the panellists mentioned the fact that Kickstarter will this year distribute more money to the arts than the National Endowment for Arts. They could also have pointed to the much-cited story that Wikipedia helped force the Encyclopaedia Britannica out of the print business. But, as Crawford pointed out, uprooting the old institutions isn’t necessarily a desirable model for change, and in the case of government it’s extremely unlikely to be a successful one.

Lessig did a great job of framing the second scenario of how peer networks are currently influencing institutions: the idea of the oppositional button that we press to demand change. The wildly successful anti-SOPA/PIPA campaign (in which he was heavily involved) was mobilised using many of the same peer progressive networks (and people) that Johnson cites, but after that single example of the peer progressive network mobilizing and directly impacting an established institution, the same group has so far been unable to carry forward further change. Why? Because, in Lessig’s words, “after that happened people believed we’d built the button to solve any problem, but what we saw was that all the additional problems didn’t respond when the [same] button was pushed. It points to a kind of problem that we need a lot more work on.”

That’s the problem of the interface between peer networks and the ancien regime, the means by which highly motivated, technologically-enabled citizens are able to to translate their energies, apps and startups into action – and pull on the levers of political influence. It’s a recurring theme among Government 2.0 enthusiasts and skeptics, and not just among frustrated citizens who want to make change and can’t. It also has a big impact on civil servants who find themselves in the grip of Scenario One, with innovation happening all around them and rarely including them.
Both Benkler and Johnson suggested that it’s too soon to judge the impact of peer networks on politics, and perhaps would argue that trickle-down change is happening. Johnson pointed to the great success of the Open311 platform which launched in Chicago and will later this year start up in Philadelphia, but as he later himself acknowledged, it’s a service that builds on existing government practices and has a clear path for the future that is rooted in those practices. In this sense Open311 seems to be the outlier: it’s not bright, shiny change executed from outside, that occurs in a peer-progressive network whose only interface with government is handing over a completed app or a petition.

It’s not just an interface that needs to be built, of course: the institutions also need reform, as Crawford was quick to point out. But in an environment where so much progressive change is being created outside of government, it’s essential that both the peer progressives and the institutional players start talking about how these changes are made and that they are, in as much as they can be, co-created. Relying on either supplanting a faltering old system or pushing the ‘no’ button may be a successful tactic to topple a company or lobby on a single issue, but it’s not going to build lasting change.

Part of the thinking on this probably needs to come from grounding the idea of what we mean by peer networks, and recognising that they’re neither neutral, nor something that was invented with the Internet – both of which are telling observations that TL Taylor made last night. The notions of cooperation and decentralised mobilisation are already embedded in democratic culture, even if in some of our societies we’ve left them dormant for a few generations. So while the tools that peer progressives are using are exciting, and it’s great that Johnson is providing a framework to bring these ideas and groups together, it will be even more exciting to see these phenomena being situated at the heart of decision-making processes and grounded not in the excitement of the next revolution, but in the values that have been driving political change for centuries.

You can read a comprehensive liveblog of the event by Matt Stempeck and Nate Matias here. This entry was cross-posted from