Authors@Steven Johnson | "Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age"

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 28.09.2012

>>Female presenter: Good afternoon. Authors at Google New York is pleased to have Steven
Johnson, the author of Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. Steven
Johnson is the author of several bestsellers including Where Good Ideas Come From, The
Invention of Air, my personal favorite, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad is Good for
You. He is also the editor of the anthology, The Innovator's Cookbook. He is the founder
of a variety of websites, most recently and he writes for Time, Wired and
The New York Times. Please welcome Steven Johnson.
>>Steven Johnson: Thank you. All right. Thank you.
This is day three of the book tour for Future Perfect so I'm at that lovely stage where
I'm still I'm still excited to listen to myself talk about this book. In a couple weeks,
I'll be very tired of my own voice on this topic. This is a very optimistic book,
and already just in the, in this first week, I'm realizing how odd that seems to people
now. I did an interview on NPR last week where they started the interview saying, "Our
next guest is an actual optimist." Like I was a Giant Panda they had found somewhere
and they were kind of amazed at it.
And I think probably inside a company like Google, and inside the tech sector, we're
much more likely to find people who feel there is progress going on in the world and there's
reason for optimism, but when we kind of get outside of that realm, we see a lot of
people who are not so optimistic about the future, and this is--this is a book that is
making a case for reasons to be encouraged and enthusiastic about our, kind of, prospects
But it's specifically a political book. It's my first real foray into the political conversation
in a kind of explicit way, but it's not a political book in the mode that
most political book seem to be written these days, which is one side bashing the other
side. And it's not really about existing political parties but rather it's an attempt to kind
of map out what I see as this a new emerging world view, a vision of how we make
progress, how we continue progress and social good around us that I've been seeing
everywhere I look in all these people and organizations over the last five or ten years.
And it's trying to make the case that there’s a coherent kind of political philosophy that's
emerging in these different groups; one that is different from the traditional viewpoints
of the left and the right. It's not a centrist argument, because I think what I'm
arguing for is quite different.
So, it is an argument and what I want to do today to kind of walk you through the stages
of the argument. There are kind of four primary stages and tell you some stories along the
way as kind of case studies on how this stuff works.
The first kind of rung of the argument is this: we have a set of institutions in society
that, while they vary in case to case in many ways, they are coherent enough as a type
that we talk about them as kind of categories. We talk about a corporation; we talk
about the marketplace; we talk about the government or the state.
And we all know there are like many instances of corporations that behave very differently.
They're employee owned corporations; they’re corporations with
lots of participation that are not particularly hierarchical the way, in many ways Google
is; they're very top down corporations just as
there are are various different kinds of governments: local, state, federal and so on.
But we've agreed, as a society, that those institutions as a group are kind of coherent
enough that we can refer to them as the government or the state or private sector
or the market place.
And we have a set of kind of political philosophies that are predicated on the various kind of
ratios of influence of those different institutions. So if we are on the
left, we think that the state should have strong force in society and provide a safety
net and so forth. And if we're on the right, we think the market should be unleashed to
do as much as it should. And in general, the political conversation is an attempt to
figure out how do you balance those two competing forces.
What I am trying to argue is that for a long time there has been another social architecture,
another institution, that has been working in the world and providing actually
a lot of the fuel for social progress in our world, but that has become increasingly
important in the last twenty or thirty years, and that organization is what I am calling
the Peer Network, which is a simplified way of describing it from Peer to Peer Network.
And actually, the easiest way to think about the power and importance of this organizational
structure is to actually think about the Internet itself and the Web itself. And
this actually gets us directly into the presidential political conversation that's
happening right now. I wrote a little bit about that in The Times Magazine this weekend.
In the "You didn't build that" speech, which was, until last week, the most controversial
speech of the political season, [chuckles] President
Obama was talking about how entrepreneurs while they build a business are nonetheless
reliant on all sorts of infrastructure that's been provided for them by the government
so they didn't build the roads that their businesses use and they didn't build the
a lot of the technological infrastructure that they rely on and that is something that
the government did provide. And the line that after notorious "You didn't build that" line
was actually specifically about the history of the Internet. It said, quote, unquote,
"Government built the Internet so that businesses then could make money off the Internet." That
was sort of the sequence and that was the description.
Shortly after that quote appeared, The Wall Street Journal ran this sort of contrarian
Op Ed that said, "Actually the government's role in the invention of the Internet was
greatly overstated and in fact it was really the private sector that did it and it was
no accident that the Internet kind of languished
for twenty years in relative obscurity until the private sector jumped on it, including
companies like Google." And so there was kind of this argument debunking the government
built the Internet story.
Now, we understand from what we were just saying at the beginning why this matters.
If you're on the left and if you can show that the
government played an important role in innovating and creating this platform that then actually
encouraged business, that's a great defender of progressive left values. The government
actually is not just a safety net, it's a driver of change and innovation. If you're
on the right, if you can show that the government,
as they called it in The Wall Street Journal, that it was an urban myth that the
Internet had been created by the government, well then that keeps your libertarian ideals
But if you think about the actual organizations that built the Internet, and certainly that
built the Web, and many of the other key elements of code that our infrastructure
is now based on, I think that the most important thing here that is lost is that there
is this different organizational structure that was maybe the most important of all which
was this loose, decentralized affiliation of largely computer scientists around the
world collaborating in an open way; building on each other's ideas without private
ownership of their ideas, without patents, sharing and building on, in a collaborative
network, the kind of core ideas.
Funded by the government for sure. Funded by visionary, early government spending that
allowed them to build these collaborative networks. Very few people who were actually
working on the Internet in its formative years were working inside a government agency. They
were all outside, many of them in universities, and they were working in that really venerable
tradition of open source, peer reviewed science, where they were taking ideas
and saying, "That's a great idea and I can improve it. I can improve it." No one
was holding any kind of proprietary claim over these ideas.
And what's true about the Internet is even more true of the Web. It wasn't like there
was some kind of big DARPA research project that led directly to the creation of the Web.
And so if you think about it, you think about all the technology and all the code out there
that has been produced by these kinds of peer networks, whether they're government
funded research or whether it's open source software, whether it's things like
Wikipedia, think about how essential those things have now become to our lives today.
I mean in The Times piece this weekend, I had this little thought experiment which is
if you could somehow, if you were like some Dr. Evil and you wanted, you could create
this targeted magnetic pulse that would cause every bit of peer produced code to shut
off on the planet. Imagine the magnitude of that event. The Internet would go down. The
Web would go down. The markets would go down. Potentially the energy sector, aviation,
whole parts of the world, would go dark overnight. It would be a global catastrophe of a
pandemic or something like that.
That shows how much that open structure of open code collaboration has shaped our world
today. The state and the private sector are now dependent on the products of that labor.
Now, in the context of a company like Google, you will probably take some variation of this
for granted. But the point here is if we'd been having this conversation thirty
years ago with most people in the world--. I now live in Northern California in Marin
County, California and if I showed up in 1971 or something like that and said, "We're gonna
build this new set of products using collaborative non-proprietary labor with no
traditional ownership relationships. We're going to get together and share ideas and
build things." Most people would have said, "Absolutely,
I'm sure on your commune in Northern California you're really gonna, you know, make some
beautiful baskets. We look forward to seeing these products," right? People would have
said, "That's not really how the real world works. Real things don't get built in that
kind of way. In the marketplace, you have to have private property and you have to have
all this stuff.”
Here we are now, forty years later, and we see that this stuff works. And, in fact, now
a huge part of our daily lives are dependent on
precisely that kind of peer network collaboration. So what we are talking about here is not some
utopian fantasy. It's not some collectivist dream on some grad school seminar
on radical thought. It is a practical reality that we can point to and say this
works in the real world, and in many cases it has outperformed offering, competing offerings
that were created by the private sector.
So that's the beginning, the first scaffolding, that there's this structure of the peer network
that deserves to be considered alongside that of the top-down corporation
or the top-down government agency.
The second stage then is that that kind of structure, embodied in code, can be used to
solve other kinds of problems. Not just the problems of organizing and connecting all
the minds and information of the world, but other kinds of problems.
The best example of this in the last couple of years is: one, Wikipedia, obviously, which
is the attempt to use peer networks to solve the problem of how do you create a global
encyclopedia. If, again, if fifteen years ago we were having this conversation and
someone said, "I think we could all collectively build a global encyclopedia that would rival
or exceed Britannica in quality and greatly exceed it in terms of the scope and
comprehensiveness of the encyclopedia," even the true believers in the room probably
would have said, "Yeah, that's not really going to happen. I think that's unlikely."
And yet it happened, and it's real and it's there.
The other great example, from New York, is Kickstarter. Kickstarter is an attempt to
solve the problem of how do you fund creative work, how do fund interesting experimental
artistic work that is not yet getting supported by the traditional venues of the market.
We have decided as society long ago that it's important to support creative work when it's
in that more experimental stage when it doesn’t yet have the private sector backing.
That's why we have big institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts, or big
philanthropic institutions like the Duke Foundation or the MacArthur Foundation and so on. We
don't have a National Endowment for the Detergents because we've decided that
the private sector is very good at coming up with laundry materials, but we do have
a National Endowment for the Arts because we
feel that artists need a little extra help, right? And we think it's good, as a society,
to support those ideas so that they can spread and even turn into more interesting ideas.
Up until recently, the way that you funded your experimental projects was either you
kept your day job or you went to a big organization like the National Endowment for
the Arts or the Duke Foundation and you tried to get a grant and a small number of
decision makers inside those big organizations would make a decision of whether to support
your project or not.
Well, Kickstarter came along and they said, "Wait a second--the world is filled with people
who would probably be willing to give ten dollars or fifty dollars to support an
interesting project even if they aren't technically investing in the project. Even if
they don't see a commercial return from that investment if the project takes off." And
so they went out and created this platform, and what's interesting about Kickstarter actually
is that it's an example of a for-profit company. It's a venture backed start up
that's probably going to make a tidy return for its investors. But what it creates is
this peer network gift economy where people are proposing projects and funding projects
without traditional commercial relationships. There's not an invest, by the kind of
bylaws of the system, there is not a investment relationship. There's not a ROI measured by
traditional accounts in the Kickstarter structure.
But here we are now, and you all know this as well as I do, but here we are now three
or four years later, and Kickstarter is on track to give away more money to artists this
year than the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. So the question
is no longer is Kickstarter whatever. Is it ever possible that it would be as big as the
NEA? The question is Kickstarter going to be ten times bigger than the NEA?
And that's not an argument for doing away with the NEA. It is maybe an argument to make
the NEA work a little more like Kickstarter. But what it effectively does,
and this is the key to so many of these types of organizations, is that it decentralizes
and diversifies and densifies the number of people who are involved in the decision making
process of which creative works should get funded and which shouldn't. And there
is a decision--less than fifty percent of Kickstarter projects get funded--so it's not
as if anything goes, there is a selection process
which is crucial to these systems. There has to be a way of separating the signal
from the noise, just as page rank figured out this way--in a decentralized way--of figuring
out what was quality on the Internet and what was not.
But they greatly expanded the pool of people who were involved in that decision making
process, so instead of these very top-down, very small number of decision makers who are
funding creative work before now we have this much wider net. And what it is about
is this kind of gift economy exchange. So again, we have this situation where using
the technology, creating peer networks solves the problem and does it in really extraordinarily
way and actually untaps, unlocks all this kind of energy and enthusiasm that
wasn't there before. So that's using the technology of a peer network to solve a different kind
of problem in the case of KickStarter, it's Arts funding.
But the key thing that I want to stress here, particularly in the context like--of that
of Google, is that these aren't necessarily all high tech solutions. I'm not
optimistic in a cyber-utopian sense. There's not a sense of 'Okay, if we could just
like throw the Internet at people, and get the on their Android phones, the world would
be better.' In fact, I think in many cases the peer
networks could work just as well in very low tech environments without a lot of technology.
The Internet makes it easier to form these kinds of structures, in part because
it lowers the organizational cost of forming groups as Clay Shirky as argued over the
But I think it's just as important to point out that there are face-to-face, real world
applications of peer networks, too. And I'll tell you just about two of them.
One involves a great story from about fifteen years ago. A couple, Jerry and Monique Sternin
were asked by Save the Children to go and look at childhood malnutrition in the
rice paddy communities in Vietnam. And the traditional way that you deal with this
problem in developing world context is you send people over, you've got children that
aren't getting enough nourishment, and one solution is you just take a bunch of food
and you're going to chopper it in and deliver it and say, "Here, you should eat more of
this." And then you go, which is obviously not a sustainable solution to the problem.
The other way is to kind of come in as an outside expert and be like, "This is what
you should be eating, you should be doing this more. Here's a big lecture, we're going
to try and make sure that you do this."
But the approach that these guys took was that they decided actually to solve it in
a decidedly peer network, bottom up way. They said,
"Inside this community, in the diverse set of approaches to feeding your children that
exist in this extended community, there are going to be people who actually have figured
out a way, given the existing conditions that they live in, to have healthier, better
fed children. And so what we need to do is not come in from the outside with a bunch
of solutions or outside set of supplies of food, but we need to figure out within this
network of people to unlock these strategies that they've already stumbled across or
found knowingly on their own."
And so the first thing they did was they went in and they just weighed the children, right?
They just went around with scales and went from neighborhood, community to community,
and figured out what are the kids who are actually doing well, what are the kids
that are the least malnourished in this community. And they called these the positive deviants.
These were the ones that were deviating from the norm in a positive way.
So they found these outliers, these positive deviants, and then they did this kind of on
the ground ethnographic-thick research where they tried to figure out what was it about
the diets and the routines of these families that were helping them to have these
healthier children in this particular, specific context.
And they found there were these clear recurring patterns, one of which is that they were being
fed rice in small meals through out the day rather than just a couple of big meals.
Which was helping their stomach--basically there's only so much rice a small
stomach can take in. So they were having these little incremental snacks through the day.
But the most important thing that the found was that they were feeding, the positive
deviants were feeding their kids little crustaceans, little shrimp, that were in the
swampy areas of the rice paddies. Which had been largely seen as a "low-class" food and
most of the other families just kind of shunned that stuff and just fed their kids
rice. But in fact, because there was additional vitamins and proteins in these little
crustaceans, the kids were getting a much more richer, balanced diet.
So once they figured out what the strategies were, which were there already in the community,
instead of broadcasting that to the group, they again used the peer network structure
to spread the word. So they had the families themselves who had adopted these
kind of dietary policies, the families themselves hosted potluck dinners for the rest of the
community and everybody came and they sat, and the families that had adopted this
kind of showed their peers in the community and cooked for them. Basically gave them
the meals that they were preparing for their kids. And so word spread organically, was
being pushed along and kind of amplified by the outside agency. But the knowledge and
the kind of gossip about that knowledge that spread through the community spread through
the peer network itself in a kind of bottom up way.
What they found was, there was a short term decrease in malnutrition, but the key thing
was they went back a generation later, and they saw the same positive news. It had stuck
in that community. It wasn't just a one time thing. They left, came back ten-fifteen
years later and the kids were still better fed and so it had become part of the kind
of habits of the community. The positive deviance had become the new norm in that world.
So that's an example of how peer networks can work without technology. I mean the most
advanced technology they used in that was a
scale, effectively, right.
The other example, and here is where I think the most opportunity exists for this kind
of social change, and this is on the level of location and neighborhoods and local governments.
So in the late '80s in Porto Alegre in Brazil, a city that had had terrible
growing pains. It's gone from two hundred thousand people to two million people in a
short amount of time and they had these vast shanty towns and favelas without running water
or access to a sewer or electricity. So they were just a city that was really growing at
an incredible clip and was having hard time keeping
up with it all.
In 1989, they instituted this really extraordinary approach which they called participatory budgeting.
And participatory budgeting is the idea that there's a certain significant
slice of taxpayer dollars each year that is held for the local communities to decide
directly how it should be spent. So every year, neighborhoods around the city get together
and they have these local referendums where they talk about the needs of the neighborhood,
they talk about the community, they talk about what's working and what's not
working. And at the end of this process they create a ranked list of things they want funded.
Whether it's bringing the sewer to this part of the neighborhood or adding another
room to the schoolhouse or building a community garden or park. And that list is
then presented to the city and the state and projects get funded with a slight bias towards
neighborhoods that have less resources. In this system, it doesn't just go to the
wealthiest neighborhoods.
And what the found was, almost immediately, this approach was much more effective. It
had a couple of really positive effects. The first was that it greatly reduced the amount
of corruption and waste in the process because when the neighborhood itself was
proposing something that they wanted built and they had a mechanism to say, "Yes, we
want to have this playground here." When that playground didn't show up for six months or
a year, there was an immediate sense that something was wrong. Where is if the project
had been kind of green lit by some bureaucrat that no one ever really know, they wouldn't
have really noticed that something was missing. So it was much harder for money to
just get lost or projects to get infinitely postponed. And so they saw this dramatic
increase in a whole number of metrics ,in roads being built, or sewer pipes being connected
and so on.
The other thing that happened, though, was it that created this positive feedback loop
where people got involved in the process, they
showed up, and were engaged in this neighborhood referenda and from that engagement, they ended
up seeing results, right? You know six months later this thing that they wanted
was actually built. So it created this positive feedback loop of engagement, of people
saying " Okay, I can get involved and things will improve. I'll see the results right away."
So participatory budgeting is now spreading really across the world. It's in over ten
percent of city budgets in Europe, or involve significant participatory budgeting approaches
and it's now coming. There's experiments with it here in Brooklyn and in Chicago and other
cities around the U.S. So it's a very powerful mode.
And it's not hard to imagine how you could take a model like that and layer a Kickstarter
style approach on top of it. In fact, there are a lot of really interesting companies
are starting to do this. Some of them for-profit, some of them non-profits.
Companies like Neighborland,Neighborly and SeeClickFix, and the basic idea is that you
say you've got this community of folks, in a
neighborhood, they know better than anybody else, they are the true experts. They know
where the problems are and where the opportunities are. They know what the needs
are, they know what's not working, what is working, where the little impasses are in
that community.
And if you give them a platform, one, that enables that peer network to identify problems
and needs, and other members in the community to vote on and rank those needs.
To say, "Yes, you're right, you have pointed out that we need another stop sign there and
I'm going to endorse that in some fashion."
So you have a peer network to identify the needs of the community, then you have another
layer of network to propose solutions to those problems. So there's an abandoned lot
in the neighborhood, somebody proposes building a beer garden there; somebody proposes
paving it over; somebody proposes building a condo; somebody proposes making a community
garden. All these different proposals come in and,
along the Brazilian model, people can vote on those proposals. Maybe even fund them directly.
Maybe it's a Kickstarter model where they say "Yes, I would like to see that and
here's one hundred dollars to contribute to it." Maybe they have voucher-like
economics where they have a certain slice of their taxes that they are paying into the
city that they can allocate towards projects that they want to support or want to be a
part of.
And so you have this layered peer networks here where both the identification and the
solving of the problem are created by the community itself.
Some cases there may be cities involved in that process; in some cases there may be private
sector forces involved in that process. Some cases it may be just local communities.
One of my favorite stories actually, that's not in the book that I just came across the
other day, is this story about this guy, Mark Lakeman in Portland who lived in Oregon
in this semi-anonymous residential street in Portland. I think it's the intersection
of Sherritt Street and Ninth Street, I think it was. And he lived there for a few years
and it was just a classic residential street where there's an intersection where
nothing ever happened and, you know, just kind of owned by the cars.
And he went on this trip, actually to Central America, and he came back and realized that
throughout human history and particularly in these traditional societies, crossroads
were a core location of civic culture. Where streets came together, that was where a
community would gather and do interesting things and where there was this strong tradition
of civic bonding that would happen. And he looked out at the intersection by his house
and there was nothing. It was dead. And so he said, "How can we make this space more
interesting? How can we create a community and something distinctive about this otherwise
generic intersection?"
And so he decided the first thing to do was to paint it. He wanted to create this very
elaborate, you know, intersection wide, even slightly larger, maybe
slightly psychedelic painting. He got his neighbors on board, he said, "I think it'll
be great. I think it will make this--. It'll be a space. It will have
some definition to it." And he went to the city of Portland and initially went to the
transportation department and they were like, "You can't do that." And they actually said,
"That's not allowed. That's public space. No one can use it." That was the quote.
Nice and Orwellian.
And so, he finally got the attention of the mayor's office and they actually got excited
about it and so they built this thing. They ended up starting to call it "Share-it"
square, as in sharing, rather than Sherritt which was spelled with an 'E'. And after
building this thing, it became this little gathering place and and they created a little
solar powered twenty-four hour tea station so you could get a little tea. And they created
a little lending library where people could drop off books and pick up books and a
few other, a classic Portland, Oregon kind of story. And all of a sudden all these other
intersections around the city, and then in Seattle and then in other places started to
be inspired by that and they started creating this thing called, with this little
manual called "Intersection Repair." It was how to take this dead thing that you live
next to and turn it into something that the community actually owned and felt like they
had some identity there. And now they have this whole organization called "City Repair"
that's encouraging things like that.
So that kind of model of allowing people at the local level to solve those problems and
giving them tools, sometimes just a manual of how to do it and how to get through the
bureaucratic system to make those changes and sometimes actual technology platforms
to let people do this. This is a great opportunity.
This is tremendous opportunity and I think we have now in the culture an awareness
that those kinds of participatory, bottoms up, peer networks can work. People are willing
to try things now because of the success that we can point to with things like the
Internet, and the Web, and Wikipedia, and Kickstarter.
So that part of the landscape I find really enthusiastic, really you know inspiring and
exciting and there are a million different projects that are working in that way.
The final rung in the argument then is, if you believe in these things, if you believe
in the power of these kinds of new institutions, then where does that put you
on the political spectrum? It's kind of where we began. You know, I think people who
believe in the power of these systems take very seriously the libertarian idea that was
first and most powerfully formulated by Hayek which was that decentralized systems
in the long run will outperform centralized systems.
The world is so complex, society is so complex, the economy is so complex that no small group
of planners or generals or people in charge of the whole thing can possibly understand
the complexity of that universe and so systems like marketplaces tend to work better
because each participant in the marketplace doesn’t have to understand the whole. You
don't have to have that kind of information bottleneck where you have to condense the
whole thing down to something that a small group of people can understand. All the
marketplace needs is individuals looking at some part of the society, some part of the
economy, and if you create a system that allows exchange and cooperation and competition
between all those different agents, you'll end up being much more effective than
this bottleneck of the state or central planners.
So on the one hand, I think that folks who are championing these kinds of systems take
that critique very seriously but they aren't libertarian in that they don't think that
the market solves all the problems in the world and there are many things in society
that we need non-market forces to help us solve. And there
are many cases where non-market agencies and collaborative structures than can do
better than the market. History of the Internet and the Web and so many of the technologies
that we rely on is the most articulate case for that.
So these folks who believe in that kind of progressive tradition and community building
and bottom up and believe in that --at the same time-- that kind of Hayek influenced
belief in the power of decentralization. Who are these people? They're not big government
people; they're not big capital people. So in the book I'm starting to call these people
peer progressives. And they are folks that are working outside the traditions of
the left and the right, but I think they've got a building track record right now that
is actually generating results that we can point to and say this kind of approach actually
I'll leave you, we can open up to conversation, but I'll tell you just one story that may
be my favorite story of the whole book, which took place right here in this neighborhood
and is an example of how a government agency can work with a peer network to
actually solve problems in cities and involves the incredible 311 service that the city has
pioneered here. There's 311 in many cities around the country but no one does
it better than New York. It's one of Bloomberg's big projects. It's what happens when you
have a nerd mayor, you get things like 311. But 311 is absolutely one of the great advances
in urban living and civic culture that we've seen in the last decade or two.
So as most of you, 311 works on a couple levels. 311 takes call volume off of 911 so you can
call 311 if there's a, you know, a problem that the authorities should know about
but it's not a life or death emergency. So if someone breaks into your house, you
still call 911 but if there's like a homeless person asleep by a playground, well, then
you can call 311. So it reduces call volume on 911, which is helpful.
But the big thing is it functions as an information concierge for the city, right? So anybody
can call in and say, "Hey, are schools closed today? Is it alternate side
parking? I need a battered women's shelter. I'm looking for a kids' event in Prospect
Park." And they'll get a live human being in thirty seconds. They speak over a hundred
and eighty languages, not one person. They all speak, some of them speak some languages,
others speak others. And they know the answers to kind of, they figured out
ninety-five percent of the questions are actually a small subset of potential questions so they
have a lot of the answers pre-canned.
But they can get you to people who know the answers throughout the government infrastructure
as well. So you get a human being and they've done all this quality testing on the
call centers and they actually perform--. They have the customer satisfaction at its
very top and the only thing that is competitive with them are high end hotel chains in terms
of customer service, in terms of a call center. They greatly outperform other
government institutions like the IRS. If you call the IRS, they don't do nearly as good
a job; and at the bottom of the list in terms of call center customer satisfaction are the
cable companies. So you actually have a government agency that is responding to customers
in this way.
But here's the big thing: every question and observation and data point that comes in through
311 is being tagged, and geotagged and mapped and categorized by the city. So
people can call in and report potholes, as Bloomberg apparently likes to do, and they
can come in and complain about a bar down the street that is making too much noise and
all those complaints and requests and all those questions gets tagged and mapped. So
the city has this constantly adapting dashboard that shows them the needs of a vast city of
eight million people.
This is classic information overload problem, how do you figure out where the problems are
in a city that big? And the old way of doing it would be like, okay, you would hire
a bunch of experts that would be on the city payroll that would go out and look for
potholes and look for problems and report back to headquarters. In the new model, in
the peer network model, you deputize anyone who can dial three numbers on a phone and
allow them to be part of this process. You greatly decentralize and diversify the number
of people involved in this problem solving routine, again, very similar to the insight
of page rank. Don't hire a bunch of archivists and librarians to organize the
Internet, let anybody who can organize the Internet by just linking from one site to
another be part of this process.
And it's been a huge success. The city is much more responsive to these needs. And there've
been, they've fielded over a hundred million calls. It just works. And it's you
know, been created by government so it's not that the government is, you know, should be
rendered obsolete by these systems. But what the government
is doing is saying, "No, no, no. We want to create networks that allow far more
people to be part of this process."
And this best case study of this [chuckles] happened right here, and I experienced it
first hand many years ago walking around this neighborhood. It was this very bizarre thing
where every now again certain neighborhoods on the west side of Manhattan would smell
like maple syrup and you'd be walking down the street in the West Village.
All of a sudden you'd be like, "Oh my God, it smells like pancakes. What is going on?"
And you'd walk for blocks and blocks and there's be
the total saturated smell of maple syrup. This started around 2004. And you know it's
post-9/11 New York, people are nervous about this kind of thing. They're worried it's like
a chemical attack or something like that, so you know from like the Aunt Jemima
wing of Al Qaeda. [laughter]And so they're, they start calling it in 311. 311 had just
started just about a year before, so they're calling into 311 and like, "It smells like
pancakes in Chelsea. What's going on?" And so the city sent out inspectors to test the
air and the air was fine and safe and so they encouraged people--. They told the 311
operators if people call in tell them it's fine, they should enjoy the smell, it's not
going to hurt them.
But it kept happening. And The Times wrote about it and local bloggers wrote about it.
And it would happen every couple of months in
a slightly different neighborhood but all on the West Side. And it became so common
[laughter] an occurrence that inside the 311, the city
began calling these things "Maple Syrup Events", capitol "M", Capital "S", Capital "E" which
is like the worst thriller you've ever gone to, you know, 'The Maple Syrup Event.'
And they, so they, it kept happening and then finally years later, someone inside 311
said, "Wait a second, all these calls that we've been getting over the years, these are
clues. Right? They're not just people freaking out about terrorists. They're clues.
We can solve this riddle of where these smells are coming from."
And so they went back. They had all the data roughly in terms of neighborhoods of where
the calls where coming from in past MSEs and they instructed their operators when the
next one erupted to get exact geo-coordinates, like cross streets of where the callers
were coming from. And they aggregated all this data and when they built into the model
the prevailing wind patterns for each day that the MSE had happened, it created this
incredibly clear vector that just pointed back to this one location in New Jersey. The
smells were coming from New Jersey. [laughs] I'm not saying they were bad smells they just
were coming from New Jersey.
And so they literally saw this point on the map and [laughs] they drove their van across
the bridge and went to this point in New Jersey where they found that there was a artificial
flavor and scent plant that every now and then would process the fenugreek seed which
used in many cuisines in the world. But in the U.S. supermarket you're most likely to
find it on the shelf where they sell cheap maple syrup knockoffs.
My love about this story is, yes, it was not a chemical attack. It was not a life or death
matter. But when they were designing 311, nobody said the other thing the service
should be good at was if there's a syrupy smell in Manhattan [laughter] we should be
able to use it to trace the origins of it. But because
the system was this decentralized, diverse peer network, because it allowed anyone on
the street who was experiencing something, they
had a mechanism to report it and there was a mechanism for looking at all that data and
analyzing all that data. The system turned out to be extremely good at both noticing
this problem and ultimately solving the mystery of where it came from.
And that, I think, is the great power of these kinds of systems and it's something we've
seen again and again and again in the technology world. When you invite more people
to participate in the process --what Tim O'Reilly calls the architecture of
participation-- and you have more kind of diverse groups of people participating in
the process and you give all those individuals a
voice. And you give them a platform where they can point out what it is bothering them,
whether it's is a serious urban crisis or whether it’s maple syrup smell. In the long
run, those systems are not just kind of touchy feely nice because everyone gets a
voice, in the long run they will out perform the alternatives.
And one of the ways they out perform is by coming up with new solutions or observing
new problems that the original creators never dreamed of. That's where they get this kind
of extraordinary innovative power that can solve problems that we didn't even know we
were going to have to solve when we were designing the service in the first place.
And so, when you have, you know, government sponsored institutions, in general, like city
governments have not been a hot bed of innovation over the course of the last century.
But when we have examples to point to, like 311, and we have examples to point to
from either the private sector, like Kickstarter or that sort of middle zone like so much of
the technology that we use today, neither private sector nor government created,
I think it makes a very good case that we're on to something. And that there is
really a new opportunity here, inspired by the Internet, sometimes using the Internet,
sometimes using technology but most using this way of organizing the world.
So, I hope with this book, this book is just designed very explicitly to be the start of
something. It's a fun book to write because it's in a sense a book about something
that hasn't fully happened yet. There's a lot of stories in it. It's driven by
narrative so it's not a book about abstract political theory. But I mostly wrote it to
be short and timely and get it out there because I wanted to capture what I saw happening
around me, but mostly I wanted it to be it's own little platform. And my dream for
this project is that folks will read it and then three or four years from now I'll hear
somebody say, "Oh, I used that idea and that platform and that way of looking at the
world to solve this other problem," which had not occurred to me at all.
That will be the sign of its success is if it actually triggers things that were not
actually part of my blueprint at all. So if you can be one of those people, if Google
can be one of those organizations, that would make me incredibly happy and thank you
again for having me come visit. Appreciate it.
So if there are any questions, I think probably people will want to go to the microphone,
right? Because this is being recorded, so if anyone has. And by the way I am very happy
to hear other stories from your experience, or inside or outside of Google that
resonate with what I've been talking about instead of just a question. Or you can just
tell me stories about your own personal life, uh, if you'd like as well. [Laughter]
>>Male #1: Hello, [clears throat] thanks for being here, I don't have a story about my
personal life--
>>Stephen Johnson: Please.
>>Male #1: But I'm curious on your thoughts around sort of the risks of imperfect or flawed
platforms. The Kickstarter example is a good one because it's been in the news
a lot recently, well, it's been on the 'Internet news" a lot recently--
>>Stephen Johnson: Yeah.
>>Male #1: Where they've made some changes to the way they are sort of allowing programs
into the platform. So you can use that specific example or I mean, if there's
other examples that you've sort of encountered where good intentions can lead us astray.
I mean, it's something that we kind of keep in the back of our minds, I think, at Google
because we are building these platforms--[fades out]
>>Steve Johnson: Yeah. It's a great question and I do try and talk about this a little
bit in the book, although I'm also trying to
be you know provocatively utopian in what the book is saying because I feel like we
need a little bit of that right now. It's not
as though you set up a decentralized network and let everybody participate and you're golden,
right? I mean what happens when you create much more diverse unplanned networks
is it introduces, by definition, it introduces more noise and chaos into the system. The
beautiful thing about perfectly planned environments is they're very controlled. They may be nightmares,
but they don't have that kind of ragged noisiness and when you open
up a platform to anybody that means it is filled with all sorts of cranks, and people
with an agenda, and scam artists, and people who are trying to abuse the system in one
way or another, or people who are just wrong and misguided in their views [laughter] and
trying to steer with good intentions in the wrong way, right?
So to that I think you have to take that seriously and that means you have to design the architecture
of these things so they subdue that as much as possible. And this
is exactly what Kickstarter is trying to do right now. They're an experiment and they're
constantly going to be tweaking things just as Google has been tweaking page rank to deal
with people trying to exploit it from almost day one. It's an inevitable part of
the process.
The two things I've been saying to people when this comes up are:
One, these are also the objections people make about democracies, right? We've decided,
in general, most of us around the world, that despite the fact that democracies open
up the voting process to cranks and scam artists and people who are just wrong. That in
the long run they're better than these other systems because they involve a much more diverse
make up of decision makers that better represent the needs of the overall
population. And so it doesn't mean that democracies work the second you set them up and
you have to be constantly tinkering with them.
The other example, I think, is Wikipedia, right? This is one of the places where the
media has been--you know I think they've skewed things by focusing disproportionally on the
places where Wikipedia fails. In the book I say it's a bit like aviation history right?
The news with the aviation should be the astonishingly large number, high percentage of flights that
you know take off and land with perfect safety, rather than the plane
crash. But, of course, we cover the plane crash; same thing with Wikipedia. Incredible
news every day should be this thing works 99.9 percent of the time. [laughs] It's amazing
that it works, and yes every now and then, there
are articles where someone has abused that platform, said something libelous, said something
insane, but, they've, overtime, built this ind of social architecture that encourages
more truth and less falsehoods. [chuckles] And it, the system kind of trends toward more
accuracy despite it having any traditional top down experts deciding things.
So each problem, each network is gonna be unique. The problem of a neighborhood self-organizing
and creating a peer network to solve its needs is probably going to be different from a global
encyclopedia, but I think there are probably some common threads that we can
learn, best practices that we can apply that deal with those problems. But it does involve
a certain lack of control and a certain increase in noise and unpredictability to
the system for sure. But I think we've gotten smart enough to figure out ways around some
of those problems.
>>Male #2: It's interesting when you talk about peer based networks and there's a difference
between the way Kickstarter works and the way Wikipedia works. And that's
to me in the term of authorship, ownership and credit, so recognition that I did this
Wikipedia doesn't seem to have that. You don't take pride in saying, 'I edited that', it's
just for you to enjoy. And similar behavior comes in when you think about Internet
memes. So I made an Internet meme of a hipster kitty, I laugh at it. I don't expect
the world to know that I made it.
But that's not the model with Kickstarter where there's abs--. There's two kinds of
recognition, there's one of the artist or the maker who
says, "I made this project, give me the money. If I get the money, I'm going to make it."
Then you go and there's this social cachet that you get, "I backed this gaming
console and so I'm great." So what to you think is the balance of that and where do
you see that heading, especially when it comes to governments and things like that?
>>Steve Johnson: Yeah, that's a really good important observation which I didn't fully
address in the book. You know, the common theme to that is this idea again which again
is not news since inside of Google is that people will be motivated by a much wider
range of rewards than traditional economics believes. You know, Dan Pink has written about
this a little bit in Drive. And sometimes when you offer money you get less
motivation. People are like, "No, I want esteem. I want the recognition of my peers,"
for instance, to use the word peer again can be a big driver.
So what all these systems have showed us in real, vivid, practical success stories is
that the tools that are available, the rewards that are available to incentivize
people to participate are--. There's a much wider range. Everything from "we'll give you
two dollars" to "you will silently know that you made this entry on Wikipedia about the
Challenger explosion slightly better by fixing that one sentence." [ chuckles] And
you'll have that personal sense of it.
I, to me, I think, the amazing thing about Wikipedia is that it works as well as it does
with so little recognition. You know, I think probably with Kickstarter, they wanted
to--and it may partially be because Kickstarter is a site that started post-Facebook
and Twitter, where Wikipedia predates all of that, so they went into it assuming that
all your activities would be amplified and shared in some kind of public way and you
could use that “Hey, I just backed this project on Kickstarter, aren't I awesome?"
to incentivize people to back more projects on
And it would be very interesting to see what would have happened--. It's kind of a cool
thought experiment, it's not really run through in my head so I don't have the answer,
what Wikipedia would have looked like had it been created post Facebook and Twitter.
So, it does kind of amaze me that Wikipedia gets as much participation as it does given
that the reward is so genuinely slight.
Any others?
>>Male #3: So, in this peer based model, where do you see experts? What's their role? Is
it different? Or is it, well, I'll let you answer.
>>Steve Johnson: Yeah. I think there is a role for experts. Look, you know, I want to
be disingenuous about this. I didn't crowd source the book, I wrote it as an individual
author. And it is a book that is very much connective and it's drawing upon ideas and
projects that have inspired me and part of what I do is just relay that news in the book.
But I still feel that books happen to be a form that generally work better if there
is one author than other forms. So there are cases where individuals with a certain
message, particularly a structure of an argument or storytelling form generally --for complicated
reasons that I don't totally have an answer for-- generally have worked better
with one person doing it than with a crowd doing it. So it's not that the crowd can
solve everything.
And in terms of experts, what I think has started happening, and I think this is one
of the things been an enduring success of what we used to
call the "blogosphere" [laughs] is actually again extending the realm of expertise. You
know I notice this a lot in the financial crises. And I wrote about this a little bit
in the book, leading up the election in 2008. That one of the things that was there
then that wasn't there for instance when there was the recession before Clinton was elected,
and there was a lot of talk about politics and how either party were going to
fix the economy.
You had a certain number of experts that would show up on the pages of the Wall Street Journal,
or the pages of The New York Times, the Op Ed pages and you had a political class of
pundits who would talk about these issues on CNN or something like that. But by 2008,
you had this amazing new caste in the middle there
of academics actually, economists who were working at schools who were actually trained
in the field who were not necessarily pundits, who were not going to go on these shows, but
had an extraordinary amount of expertise, actually more expertise than most
of the people who'd been on television before. Who now, thanks to blogging, were able
to kind of weigh in on all these topics and give us both some guidance and interpretation
from that kind of point of view without having to fight their way onto the Op Ed page
of The New York Times. And it's not that the experts were gone, it wasn't that we
were like, “Okay, crowd, decide whether the Bush, I mean , McCain plan or the Obama
plan is better for getting out of this mess or
explain why Lehman Brothers collapsed." The crowd is not going to answer that.
But what we have now is a much wider pool of those informed experts to draw upon and
that's what, and again, that's a place where, you know, blogging seems so passé now. But
you go to a good blogger who's a great curator of interesting links to things and you
can sit down with them and see something they've put together of all these econo-bloggers who
are out there writing about these issues. That's an incredible resource that
we just did not have ten or fifteen years ago, and it's in part because it's amplifying
the voices of experts but it's created a much bigger pool of experts.
All right. Thank you so much for visiting and I'm happy to sign books and I really appreciate
you guys coming out. Appreciate it.