When you see the stock market valuations of Internet and social media companies that price audiences at billions of dollars even if there are no profits you may scratch your head in confusion. Future Perfect by Steven Johnson is a book that captures the optimism behind those stock prices and despite its US focus provides some good pointers for small businesses everywhere.
At the heart of his argument to be optimistic is his belief that LeGrand stars will be replaced by Baran webs. No, I didn’t know what he was on about either. But it is compelling to read on. LeGrand stars are systems like big corporations and big government, named after the Frenchman who built France’s railway network centred on Paris. It’s super-efficient until the centre breaks down.
Paul Baran was an engineer who worked in the US defence industry and developed a communications web that the Soviets could not disable by knocking out the centre. It became the internet. In his book. Johnson gives plenty of examples where ordinary people are able to collaborate in peer-to-peer networks to achieve great results.
For example, malnourished families in rural Vietnam were helped by outsiders who focussed on finding out how some families managed to feed their children and then on sharing their ideas in the villages. The consultants were “not there to provide outside expertise; they were there to amplify the expertise that already existed in the community.”
This is a great example for independent retailers, who need to share best practice with each other. Some of the best symbol groups started out as peer-to-peer networks and many try to maintain strong information exchanges. But the importance of this activity is often underestimated by retailers who see a world dominated by big grocers, big suppliers and big government. Those who campaign against the asymmetric control of information and power will find much encouragement in this book. They just need to find a different way to organise their arguments. Take inspiration from the defeat of SOPA by a collaboration of activists who spread the message to a billion people so that fast tracked legislation became toxic overnight.
“Over the next five years most industries are going to get rethought to be social, designed around people,” says Mark Zuckerberg in a quote used by Johnson. This is a book for people who want to make change happen. It’s opening chapter is a must read for optimists. Things really are getting better all the time, says Johnson. If you like this worldview then Future Perfect will motivate you to do more.
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