Wednesday, April 23, 2014
You know how terrible everything is? What if it really wasn't?
What if instead of being a nation in decline, we were actually experiencing steady, if uneven, improvement in many of the important measures of social health?
This is the question posed by Steven Johnson in his new book "Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age," which was the last book I read in 2012 and by far the most optimistic.
Ask most people to identify the trends over the last two decades for high school dropout rates, college enrollment, SAT scores, juvenile crime, drunken driving, traffic deaths, infant mortality, life expectancy, divorce, male-female wage equality, charitable giving and voter turnout, and they would tell you that all or most are down.
But Johnson points out they are all up -- maybe not as far as we would like, but moving in the right direction. Recognizing that is not just something to make people feel better, but also to help them appreciate where progress comes from and how to harness its power.
The book opens with a description of the "Miracle on the Hudson," the successful 2009 crash landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in which not one passenger died. The nation heaved a collective sigh of relief and made a hero of pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who brought the disabled jet down after a flock of birds got sucked into its engines.
The real story is more complicated. Flight 1549's landing came in the middle of the safest period of commercial flight since they first started selling tickets on planes.
Sullenberger had engines designed not to explode when they are struck by birds, and continued spinning just enough to keep the aircraft's electronics and hydraulics working. These engines were developed through Air Force tests in which chicken carcasses were fired into spinning jet engines by a helium gun.
Sullenberger also had fly-by-wire technology, a kind of midpoint between auto pilot and manual, where multiple sensors and an on-board computer worked alongside him, setting boundaries and optimal targets for his actions. The successful landing was less a miracle and a fluke than the happy result of a brilliant pilot with the benefit of years of trial-and-error improvements by a dispersed network of experts in different fields addressing the same problems from many angles.
Networks like that are what give Johnson hope that we can apply the lessons of technology development to government, education, business and media, driving improvements in areas that now look hopeless.
After watching Congress and the White House flail around in their attempt to keep the country from sliding off the fiscal cliff -- a problem they created and that they all agree would be bad for the country -- it's hard to be optimistic.
You can see why other new books in 2012 include titles like "America in Decline" and "It's Even Worse Than It Looks."
But Johnson is used to being an outlier in pointing out that things might not be as bad as they seem -- his 2005 book was called "Everything Bad is Good for You: How Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter."
Throughout history, Johnson points out, major problems have been solved by networks of peers with diverse interests who share information, adding incremental improvements together to make major breakthroughs. With the arrival of the Internet, the defining method of communication for our age, creating these networks has never been easier or less expensive, so it stands to reason that the kind of progress that helped Flight 1549 land safely in the Hudson will keep coming.
Johnson makes a case that the same principles could be applied to politics and government, borrowing from conservative market theories and liberal ideas about equal opportunity and diversity. The government would play a role as the creator of incentives for activities, but not as the planning hub for them. The real work would be done by collaborators working on the same problems.
It's a political identity that Johnson calls "peer progressive" that doesn't fit neatly into either major American political party because it's just as suspicious of big corporations as is it is of big government. But it's one that anyone who has ever read an article on Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that is literally written by its readers, can understand. To see the speed at which an idea can grow without the government or a market incentive behind it is to understand how other aspects of our lives could be transformed.
Most of the people who are worried about our decline are the people most concerned with the (very real) decline of historically important institutions -- like political parties, organized religious groups and (gulp) newspapers, to name a few.
But Johnson argues that networks could emerge to take their places, creating solutions for the problems that those old institutions couldn't.
The start of a new year is a good time to be optimistic.
Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: