Web-City: Interview with Steven Johnson

London Essays – Issue 2: Technology

Web-City: Interview with Steven Johnson

The New York based writer Steven Johnson has written a string of best-selling books on the history and psychology of innovation and invention, including EmergenceThe Ghost MapWhere Good Ideas Come From and, most recently, How We Got to Now. Cities have always been central to his interest. Ben Rogers interviewed him on 6th May 2015.

Ben Rogers: Steven, you have written a lot about cities and a lot about the Internet and they are clearly closely connected in your mind. Why?

Steven Johnson: You’re right. I have long thought the city was a good model for understanding the Internet. This was something that I explored in my second book, Emergence, which was published in 2001. The Internet is a very large and elusive thing. You can’t see it and it’s too big to be conceptualised on its own. When it first became an everyday phenomenon, back in the 1990s, there was – and there still is to some extent – a battle over how to understand it. There were a bunch of early metaphors. People talked about ‘the information superhighway’, which was very political in that the United States had a big state highway system funded in the 1950s and many people were arguing for state funding for this new system of connection. But no one likes highways anymore!

Then people talked about the Web as huge ‘library’, where we would search out information, or as a giant ‘mall’ where we’d go to buy things.

Then people talked about the Web as huge ‘library’, where we would search out information, or as a giant ‘mall’ where we’d go to buy things. But I started arguing in the mid- to late nineties that the real metaphor should be the city, because if we thought of the city as a guiding principle, then we’d be thinking about public spaces; about whatever the online equivalent of density is; about serendipity and surprise. We’d think about it in the way Jane Jacobs [the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities] talks about the sidewalk as a place that belongs to everyone.

My hope was that if we thought of the Internet in this way, we would probably end up building a better philosophy to guide its development and better tools to build it. It wasn’t an obvious metaphor, as it is now. And bringing Jacobs into the discussion about what the Internet should be was a useful connection.

BR: Do you think that it goes the other way as well? Do you think that the Internet has shaped people’s understanding of cities?

SJ: Yes, in a funny way. If you go back to the early 1990s, before the Internet became mainstream, the big prediction was that it would undermine cities in the way the highway system had done. Highways made suburban life easier, with the result that many cities were hollowed out. It was catastrophic. There was a thought that the Internet would exacerbate this problem: the few remaining advantages of living in the city – like the ability to go to cool indie bookstores, buy vinyl records or meet interesting quirky people – would vanish. You could do it all from your ranch in Montana! And exactly the opposite thing happened. In fact, cities where the Internet is strongest, in terms of industry or culture, are too successful and no one can afford to live there anymore!

I think that what people don’t understand is that the Internet makes cities disproportionately more interesting relative to suburbs or rural places. The problem you have when living in a city is information overload: there are so many things going on, so many people and so many interesting places to go. Suddenly, thanks to the Net, the city got more manageable and more appealing. A smartphone is not much help in a town with five restaurants, but it is when you are in a city with a thousand or fifty thousand restaurants. But perhaps the debates we have been having about how to preserve what’s best in the Internet has also made us appreciate what’s best in cities.

BR: That’s a very nice way of putting it. Let’s talk about your 2012 book Future Perfect. You define yourself in that book in opposition to both free-market libertarians and to the left with its faith in the state, and you come out in support of peer networks and participatory decision-making.

I was interested in the science of self-emerging systems – systems that did not have traditional leadership structures and that organised themselves from below.

SJ: It goes back to Emergence again. In that book I was interested in the science of self-emerging systems – systems that did not have traditional leadership structures and that organised themselves from below.

The great example that I use in that book is the ant colony, which manages very complex engineering, resource management and task allocation problems without any ant having a top-level view of the whole system. I think there is an interesting analogy about the way cities function, particularly if you think of neighbourhoods. The personality and character of neighbourhoods still emerge in this way. I used to live in the West Village in New York, which used to be famously bohemian. But no planner ever said, ‘artists, gay people, poets and jazz musicians must live in this neighbourhood’. They self-organised and indeed, a lot of things that we love about cities are organised from below rather than above.

After I had published the book, a few people commented that there was political philosophy that I failed to explore. So that’s what I did in Future Perfect. I argued that we need to give more space and more value to self-organising networks and initiatives and not always look to the state or the market. I called these kinds of systems ‘peer networks’. The classic example of this is something like Linux, the open source operating system. No one, strictly speaking, is ‘in charge’ of Linux. It was founded by Linus Torvalds, but the software itself has evolved over time thanks to thousands of contributors who steer its development in countless ways. This might seem impractical, but in fact the most widely-used operating system in the world today, Google’s Android OS, is built on top of Linux. So these kinds of peer networks can build incredibly sturdy platforms, despite the fact that they have no traditional leaders or owners.

The Internet was important to my argument. Our political cosmology is very limiting. You are either for the state or you are for the market. I was trying to say this is mistake, because if you think of the Internet, it is obviously the ultimate decentralised system; no one is fully in charge of it, and the power of it comes from its distributed nature. But on the other hand, in a sense it is the opposite of market-oriented economies. No one owns the Internet. It’s not run by the state or the market. It’s a kind of crazy, functioning anarchy!

In invoking the net, I was not trying to suggest it’s the solution to all our problems. I am not a utopian in that way. I think there are lots of problems that have to be solved through non-tech means. I was just suggesting that the way that we built the Internet, and the way the Internet has worked in society can be a role model for other kinds of solutions.

BR: Let’s think about that decentralised, non-proprietary network model in solving problems. How can we apply this?

SJ: Take, for instance, different models for funding creative work. In the past, there were only two models. You could either try to get the marketplace to buy your creative work or you could try to get support from a state fund or rich patron. But now we have a third model in the form of crowdfunding. Maybe you can get micro-patrons – who are not necessarily supporting you because they want to buy your work on its own, but because they believe there should be more of your work in existence and they’re willing to pay a hundred dollars for a CD just to support you.

Crowdfunding now distributes billions of dollars to support creative people. It is not a replacement for top-down government approaches and it is not a replacement for the market system. It’s a third tool that we have, and there’s a kind of problem that’s better solved with that approach.

BR: In the city, where do you see these opportunities lying? Where is this happening?

SJ: In terms of governance, cities are the best place for this kind of app­roach precisely for the reasons that Jane Jacobs described. People on the streets and in neighbourhoods care about and understand what’s going on in their communities better than the folks in City Hall, so we need to give them power to make decisions.

You can imagine a system where local people are putting forward ideas for improving a neighbourhood and others agree to make a donation to the ones they like

While direct democracy does not always work, in a local context I think it can. The model that is really interesting is to take participatory budgeting, and merge it with something like Kickstarter, the crowdfunding site for creative work. So you can imagine a system where local people are putting forward ideas for improving a neighbourhood and others agree to make a donation to the ones they like. But it’s not a libertarian model because you might want the government to commit to matching the funds that come from the neighbourhood. They might even match it ten to one.

BR: What is the technology that you think has the biggest urban promise?

SJ: At the highest level, it’s the social network. If you think about the last forty years of the Internet, three big things have happened – three layers on top of each other.

First the Internet, starting circa 1975, enabled us to connect computers around the world in a standardised way. Second the Web, starting in the 1980s and going mainstream in the 90s, enabled us to connect individual documents all around the world. But you could not connect to people then – it was not one of the organising principles. If Tim Berners-Lee had designed the Internet to connect people, along with pages, the next 30 or 40 years might have played out totally differently. But he did not. This very transformative move was made in the 2000s by Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin. Unfortunately 50 per cent Facebook itself is owned by a single person – it’s the very opposite of the decentralized, owner-less Internet or Web. I think Mark Zuckerberg would be high on my list of people to control these networks, but it would be preferable if no one person controlled them.

But that still might happen. I think the most likely rival candidate now is Bitcoin. Bitcoin began life as an alternate currency, but it’s really a system to establish trusted relationships between different entities without a central server, command and control architecture, or authorisation engine that knows everything and everybody. It’s a distributed solution for trust, which is what you need to have a distributed social network. Bitcoin’s future might not be as a currency, but as platform that enables us to connect and collaborate without someone owning the network. But the key point is that the social network will allow us to collaborate and connect as neighbours and peers in all sorts of ways, helping create a more participative society.

BR: Are there cities that you admire for their use of technology?

SJ: I am really obsessed with the 311 service. It’s in a lot of American cities but the most advanced version of it is in New York. It uses call centre rather than internet technology. You call in with questions or problems and you get a real person on the phone. You can call with questions about schools, events, about how to secure a bed in a women’s centre or how to recycle an air conditioning unit. You can point to a pothole on the street that needs fixing or a red light not working or a bar round the corner that’s too noisy. What’s great about it is that it’s a two-way process, because they answer your question and also record and geotag every call: it enables the city to create a real-time dashboard of what’s going on and what’s bothering people.

In the old model, you hire a pothole-reporting team who detects the potholes and fixes them. The 311 bottom-up model – the emergent model – still relies on city government repairing the roads, but anyone can pick up the phone and report a pothole.

It involves a blurring of the boundaries between people who work for the government and ordinary citizens. In the age of the GPS and the smartphone, you can be a part of the process of making your city a better place five to ten minutes a day. And the government gets a huge quantity of really helpful information that would, a decade or so ago, have been very hard to secure.

Apparently when the Bloomberg administration put in place the 311 service, they started analysing what people were phoning about. The number one complaint was noise. Now, Bloomberg had no plan for noise. His government had not registered it as an issue. But that changed because they had feedback from ordinary citizens.

BR: What would you do if you were mayor of a city like London or New York, in terms of technology?

SJ: I would greatly expand participatory budgeting. I’d set aside a small amount of my budget for neighbourhood improvement and I’d ask people to vote for how to spend it, in Kickstarter style. It would ensure that public money was being well spent. It would get people engaged and given them and a sense of power over how some of their taxes are spent. In fact, I was just walking through Prospect Park here in Brooklyn, and I noticed that there was a new area that was fenced off where they were trying to restore some native wildflowers. It had a sign on the fence saying that this project had been initiated and funded through a new participatory budgeting program in Brooklyn. So it seems to be on the rise.

BR: Brilliant. Thank you very much.