Technology and transparency

‘From time to time, it can be productive to think freely about government across party lines’

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.” 

It thus comes as little surprise that Newsom has been wholeheartedly embraced by conservatives such as Newt Gingrich. He himself says he admires the Tea Party for its grass-roots activism (although not for its politics). Many tech-people share his views on openness and transparency and the positive powers of collecting data. But where and when to stop — do I want a fitness app on my mobile that reminds me of my daily exercise and then have this information cross-checked with my health insurance? My instincts tell me this would be a particularly dim Californian version of nanny-stateism. 

What the case of the “Gavinator” suggests is something else, something which usually gets lost in the European discussions about Big Data. From time to time, it can be productive to think freely about government across party lines and to engage in that somewhat transcendental American way of thinking. I for one have my issues with government being “open”, mainly because I think that hierarchies and a streak of well-informed elitism are not necessarily a bad thing in politics. 

Newsom, though, highlights individualism. What that truly means can, perhaps, only be understood in California, it occurred to me at a party on a grand old estate overlooking the Bay. The house and the thousands of acres of land weren’t in the hands of one of the many super-rich families of the area (of which there are plenty), but had been rented out to a startup that develops augmented reality glasses. Its employees, all smart, confident and in their mid-twenties, lived in the grounds, as if forming a peculiar individualistic commune — focused and for themselves, and yet driven to pursue a goal collectively. To recreate such an atmosphere artificially, however, would mean not to foster these drives, but to strangle them.

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