Monday, 12 August 2013

Future Perfect - by Steven Johnson

At the ISTE 2013 conference earlier this year, one of the keynote addresses was given by Steven Johnson. I blogged about one of his books here. HIs most recent book is Future Perfect: the case for progress in a networked age.

In this book he surveys three conceptions of political structure. 

The first is centralization, epitomised for Johnson in the construction of the French national railway system - the Legrand Star - in the 19th century. This system was "perhaps the most iconic symbol of state planning ever built: an orderly, geometric series of rail lines radiating out across the nation from the centre point of Paris." Centralisation, according to Johnson, looks best from above. Power is centralised, the peripheries feed the core, master planning trumps local distinctives. In order to make the system legible, complexity, nuance, standardisation are all reduced.

The second conception is decentralisation, which recognises that the knowledge necessary to make centralisation work effectively is ultimately unobtainable. The complexity of society prevents us having a concentrated and integrated understanding of all relevant information; centralisation ultimately ends up being inefficient and unworkable. In contrast, the market as a decentralised mechanism is taken to be the adaptive, innovative and responsive means by which society can function.

The third conception is that of the distributed network; the internet is his exemplar of this model. There is no state-centralised control, nor is the marketplace the key driver of change; rather peer-to-peer connections are the heart of the model. These connections provide the resilience, the creativity and the life of the network.

In the rise of the peer to peer network, Johnson sees a new frame for the social architecture of our world. 

The greater part of this book explores some of the ways that peer-to-peer networks are emerging in society and solving problems that have been intractable both to the centralised state and to the capitalist market. It is a great read! Johnson has a gift for encapsulating ideas in narratives - using incidents to illustrate and unpack the concepts he is describing. This text is unabashedly optimistic about the future, which is tremendously refreshing in and of itself.

So what are the implications or challenges for schools? A few obvious ones emerge:
  • Young people need to learn the skills to collaborate and participate productively with others. This will require them to be able to articulate ideas, to think creatively, to improvise and borrow and innovate.
  • In leading a school, it suggests that innovation will arise from the edges, not the centre. How can we make sure that innovation is not stifled?
  • Connecting people (whether students, staff, teachers, parents or other stakeholders) to facilitate the flow of information and ideas is likely to make a more resilient organisation.
  • Problem-solving is best done by networks. When a problem is identified, how can a peer-to-peer network be engaged in solving it?
  • Be hopeful! We may be discovering a better way!

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