Future Perfect is an optimistic book about technology, society, and the future. That's remarkable in itself, since pessimistic (or at least cautionary) books tend to outnumber optimistic ones, but what's even more remarkable is the care and precision with which Johnson makes his case. The new communications technologies, he argues, are significant less for what they do than for what their capabilities enable us to do, if we choose to do it.
The first of the book's two sections lays out its central premise: that distributed "peer networks" allowing the free flow of information between diverse individuals are a powerful force for social progress. decentralized networks are a powerful tool for facilitating interaction between individuals, and thus for social progress. It concludes: "We have a theory of peer networks. We have the practice of building them. And we have results. We know that peer networks can work in the real world. The task now is to discover how far they can take us." The second, longer section - a series of thematic chapters on subjects like journalism, technology, and government - makes good on that promise. It presents case studies that show what peer networks have already accomplished, and contemplates what they might accomplish in the future.
Johnson's goal, in Future Perfect is not to write a primer on the theory of networks, an analysis of how distributed networks function, or a history of distributed networks (though he touches, expertly but wearing his expertise lightly, on all those subjects). Nor is his goal to predict the future: The potential applications he describes for peer networks are presented as possibilities, not certainties. His evident goal is, rather, to encourage readers raised in a world (largely) defined by centralized networks to think seriously about one (more) defined by peer networks. It is a manifesto, but an intellectual rather than a political one. In the spirit of Apple Computer (the subject of one of Johnson's case studies), it urges: "Think different."
Future Perfect is, in this sense, a spiritual sequel to Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Like the earlier work, it takes a proposition that, at first glance, seems completely absurd -- the height of fuzzy headed wishful thinking -- and patiently shows that the "absurd" idea is a more useful tool than the received wisdom that "everybody knows." Future Perfect improves on Everything Bad, however, by its carefully delineated internal structure and its layering of case study on case study, thematic chapter on thematic chapter. Johnson's central idea is breathtakingly simple. His development of it, at length and in detail, is what gives the book its power.
Steven Johnson is both an insightful thinker and an exceptionally graceful writer. If you haven't encountered his work before, this is an excellent place to begin.