THE BLOG
03/18/2013 01:01 pm ET Updated May 18, 2013

What's Progressive About 'Peer Progressives'?

The term "peer progressive," coined by Steven Johnson in his recent book Future Perfect, describes those of us who embrace networked models to address entrenched economic and social problems. It is inherently optimistic, a glass-half-full response to what can seem like utterly hopeless failures of leadership and traditional institutions over the past decades. Peer progressives like ourselves believe that more efficient, networked solutions hold more promise to address complex social problems than slower, hierarchical institutions of the 20th century.

But Johnson's optimistic view, that peer networks will pick up the slack where other institutions are failing to support progressive values, hasn't fully taken root just yet. Too often, especially where we live in Silicon Valley, "disruption" -- the gleeful battle cry of technolibertarians -- is celebrated for its own sake. There is a dominant view that innovators should be working outside the system. An inefficient public sector that is failing to address core social ills isn't a problem, it's a business opportunity. In a place that's as well known for its progressive values as it is for innovation and disruption, we see a failure of Johnson's vision. Indeed, even as wealth grows astronomically in the Valley, poverty in the tech sector's capital is rising at an alarming rate.

Despite all this, things are changing slowly, but surely. There are innovative new companies and organizations that are finding networked -- and profitable! -- solutions for all sorts of problems. Uber is creating new economic opportunities for lower and middle class livery drivers. Khan Academy and Coursera are providing educational opportunities for people around the globe. And Airbnb is allowing families to make ends meet by renting out their extra bedroom. As importantly, we're starting to see entrepreneurship take root inside government as well. But we can't take those green shoots for granted. Us peer progressives must be explicit about what "progress" means as we build these new networked institutions, and we must make sure that as we disrupt more and more of our old systems, we're not leaving anyone behind.

The Consequences of Market Disruption

While we believe that pushing power to the edges gives individuals a chance to participate and be heard like never before, the other side of the decentralization coin is that often everyone is on their own. We also see unintended consequences from the growth of these new companies when they don't fit into our existing economic and regulatory frameworks. While Airbnb is helping that family pay their grocery bill, it has also been accused of contributing to a lack of affordable housing in cities like San Francisco and New York. Despite Uber's promotion of the benefits it's bestowed on livery drivers, there are no assurances that those drivers will be treated fairly. When Uber's corporate interests conflict with the well-being of their member providers, how do those workers organize effectively?

As Rebecca MacKinnon has pointed out in her recent book Consent of the Networked, we increasingly live in a world run by companies that profit from this networked disruption without users (citizens) having a say in how those companies govern. As more and more of us turn from old institutions to modern, networked platforms to provide opportunity -- for education, for health care, for economic mobility -- how do we protect core values? How do we fill the gaps that the marketplace won't? What does progressive advocacy look like in a world of 21st-century governance?

Ensuring Basic Rights

To make sure that no one falls through the cracks in this new economy, we believe there must be a foundation of baseline rights, which are ensured for everyone in the country. For individual freedom to thrive in a networked world, we must guarantee that people can meet baseline survival needs: food, housing, health care, education, and security.

Market-driven systems do an excellent job of providing efficient solutions to those needs for most people, but they don't guarantee accessibility for everyone. Insufficient income, geographic restrictions, and lack of technology may prevent many from taking advantage of new and improved services. In the case of basic survival needs, it's often those who are most in need of the services that get left out. (Uber, for example, does a great job of making getting around the city easier for those who can afford it, but it's doing nothing to make buses run more efficiently for those who can't.)

This is where the public sector must step in. As progressives, we believe it's our moral duty to provide these basic services to all people, and government (defined as "the things we do together" by leading tech figure Tim O'Reilly) is the best vehicle for accomplishing this goal.

Disruption in Government

The good news is, we can use disruptive approaches to help make government more responsive too. New technology can improve the efficiency of many bureaucratic processes. Decentralized models can be used to create more effective ways to deliver services and give citizens more opportunity to engage with government agencies. Not only that, innovation in government makes service delivery less expensive, allowing us to deliver a better product at lower cost.

So far, for a variety of reasons, the public sector has failed to keep up with the pace of private innovation. But we're starting to see governments realize the potential that efficient, networked models can offer. A growing number of cities, states, and agencies are hiring data and technology staff to improve their processes. Organizations like Code for America are working with municipal governments to make city programs more innovative and efficient. And politicians from across the political spectrum are getting on board too. In his new book, Citizenville, California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom extols the virtues of digital governance, and Rep. Darrell Issa has made a name for himself in tech circles advocating for more entrepreneur-friendly regulations and a tech-driven policymaking process.

Of course, in order to take full advantage of these new innovations, we need a regulatory structure that allows peer networks to thrive. Many regulations that have served as important protections of consumer or worker rights in the past may no longer make as much sense in the modern world. A good example is how the ride-sharing services SideCar and Lyft were almost shut down in California last year because of confusion around state regulations. And no conversation about the growth of networked economies can start without talking about our woefully inadequate broadband infrastructure. The U.S. at best sits at the middle of the pack of developed nations in terms of speed and cost of broadband access.

A Pragmatic Approach to Progressivism

In 2006, when Tim Russert asked him about government programs he would cut, then-Senator Barack Obama said: "...if you're progressive, you have at least as much of a stake, if not more, in efficient government as fiscal conservatives, because money wasted on things that we don't need is money that we could have put into programs that do help the American people."

That vision of a results-oriented progressivism is what drives us. As we take the reins from our parents' generation and look to create a sustainable future that includes everyone, we want to avoid the irrational adherence to ideology that poisoned liberalism in the '70s and '80s and is killing conservatism now. We can avoid this fate by balancing the benefits of disruption with progressive values to ensure that everyone has access to the opportunities this new economy provides.

Catherine Bracy runs Code for All, Code for America's international program. Until November 2012, she was a product manager and director of the Obama campaign's technology office in San Francisco. She also did outreach to the tech community for Tech4Obama. Prior to joining the campaign, she ran the Knight Foundation's 2011 News Challenge and before that was the administrative director at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Jim Pugh is the CEO of ShareProgress, a politically-progressive tech startup that's offering organizations easy-to-use tools to encourage user sharing of online actions and content.. He is the former Chief Technology Officer for Rebuild the Dream, and previously served as the Director of Analytics and Development at Organizing for America and the Democratic National Committee. Jim has a Ph.D. in distributed robotics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.