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Cash-flow and counterculture: A bank in the heart of Silicon Valley (credit: Christian Rondeau)

Nowhere does the grey functionalism of my home city of Berlin feel more remote than in Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley. I'm here to work on a project about the digital reinvention of quality journalism. I've always been drawn to the lushness and ease of life around here and the eclectic mix of technology-geeks, venture capitalists, elderly hippies, libertarians and other exotic creatures that only exist in California. Unlike some European friends here, I never miss home much, and I don't suffer from a lack of "culture", preferring the space and openness, the very American experience of freedom. 

Companies all over the world attempt to recreate this blend of cash-flow and counterculture. Of course a copy can never be as powerful as the original and Silicon Valley has taken many years to become the unique place that it is. One topic, however, that's big over here may sooner or later arrive on the other side of the world: the politics of technology and the ways in which it positively influences government. 

I recently talked about this with Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of the state of California. He's a Democrat and a product of the San Francisco Bay Area: dynamic, optimistic, driven. Newsom is handsome in a way only Californians can manage: sporting white teeth, telegenic looks and glib, infectious charm that anywhere else might seem cocky, even sleazy. Despite all this wattage, he's really only known for one thing: when he was Mayor of San Francisco, after winning a fiercely contested race in 2003 in his mid-thirties (the youngest mayor in more than a century), he granted marriage licences to same-sex couples, forcing an eventual change in the law. Today, Newsom is in the slightly awkward role of Lieutenant Governor, a prestigious position but certainly not influential enough for such a colourful figure. He seems destined for higher office and even coined the term "Gavinator" (a pun on Schwarzenegger's "Governator"). "You wake up every morning, you read the paper looking in the obituaries for the Governor's name. That's pretty much it," he once joked about his present responsibilities. 

Yet Newsom has been creating some bicoastal cross-currents with his notion of "open government". In his book Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government (Penguin, £8.85), he and co-author Lisa Dickey argue that government can be more engaged with the public and more meaningful by embracing technology to enable citizens to participate in politics directly. "Top-down, bureaucratic, hierarchical government [is] choking our democracy," they write. "We need to allow people to bypass government [. . .] to look to themselves for solving problems rather than asking the government to do things for them." If that sounds unlikely from a Democrat, it gets even stranger: "Government doesn't have to come up with new killer features on its own. It has to step aside and let others come up with them." There's even a reference to the American Revolution: "The more actively engaged citizens are, the closer we come to the original vision of the Founding Fathers." 

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