Columnists » Kilian Melloy


by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 4, 2013

"Government right now is functioning on the cutting edge -- of 1973," Gavin Newsom, former mayor of San Francisco and current Lt. Governor of California, writes in his new book, "Citizenville."

"For the first time in history," Newsom continues, "anyone with a smartphone can have all the world's information literally in the palm of his or her hand. People have embraced that blessing with passion, desire, and innovation, creating apps, games, tools, and Web sites that improve their daily lives. But government has held it at arm's length while our problems have gotten worse."

In his book, Newsome points to a critical gap between the stewardship of our democracy by the citizens of our nation and the top-down management of the citizenry by a government designed, in theory, to be comprised of, and in the service to, the people of this nation. Voting for candidates or policies now draws abysmal numbers... while voting for "American Idol" contestants excites tremendous interest.

It's not simply a matter of the trivial overtaking the practical. Online activity is increasingly part of how we live our lives, as well as escape from them. The connectivity of the online world allows massively multiplayer games to thrive and flourish across cities, states, even continents; what "digital immigrants" like Newsom himself and other elected officials find challenging, or strange, or trifling, constitutes the connective tissue of the body politic for "digital natives" like Newsom's own young daughter, whom he observed, at an age of less than one year, clutching his phone.

Newsom related that anecdote while addressing an audience at Microsoft in Seattle this week. "I was convinced -- I am Catholic, and this was my conviction -- that she was The One. She was the Prodigy!" But Newsom's excitement was dampened when, upon taking his daughter to "pre-preschool" he noted that "every single damn kid" in his daughter's crèche was exhibiting similar tech-savvy behavior.

It was the idea that government can, and ought to, embrace an ethic that allows for "two-way engagement" rather than "the top-down, hierarchical 'broadcast' model, where government is doing things to you and not with you" that Newsom was thinking of when he wrote "Citizenville." The title, he said, came from the online game "Farmville," in which players spend hours tending to virtual crops and livestock and, when the need arises, turn to their fellow players to help out with their online chores.

It may seem counter-intuitive to see a politician promoting the idea of government that works with you in partnership, rather than working you over from a position of power -- particularly when it's the same official who was lambasted by the right for declaring that marriage equality had come to California "whether you like it or not!" (Those words, that video clip! The memory still sends a shudder through marriage equality advocates.) But Newsom has vital and urgent questions for us, and he also has a formula for truly improving things. How well his model might work in practice, rather than theory or small-scale application, is unclear.

Why can't America's people bring that same level of interest, energy, ownership, and cooperation to their own government? Part of the problem is that government is so stuck in past models of thinking -- models that business leaders, innovators, artists, and others who live on the leading edge have increasingly abandoned.

Government in its current form is unwieldy, slow, and wasteful; Newsom related his own experience as San Francisco's mayor, talking about a program for the homeless that was so fraught with fraud and abuse that it amounted to a financial boondoggle. Worse, the way the program was run led to severe social problems. One example: Right around the first and fifteenth of each month, when the city's homeless (not to mention the "homeless" from other cities, hucksters who only came into San Francisco to collect the money) got their four-hundred-odd dollar checks from the city, the city's liquor stores did a booming business, the hospitals filled with drunks, and people with life threatening health issues were "diverted" away from local hospitals to hospitals farther afield.

"I'm a good Democrat," Newsom said. "I thought it was obvious how to fix any problem: Spend more money on it." Once he realized what was going on with the city's homeless benefit, Newsom worked to change things up. The city began to provide services and housing, rather than a check. The hucksters stayed home; the city's hospitals stopped being flooded with inebriates. Twelve thousand needy people found their way to housing.

Similar shifts in thinking are necessary, Newsom said, to address our current problems and to improve out government. The world-transforming power of the Internet -- not just the technology itself, but the way it has been enthusiastically and almost universally embraced -- looks to be one promising direction for such a shift.

The potential for crowd-sourcing solutions to civic problems is enormous. Newsom described for his listeners the typical process for getting anything done: Committees study the issue, recommendations are made, funding is allotted for further study, and years go by. In some of the examples Newsom gave, the problem was exacerbated by contractors who play the system for huge sums of money, all to very little or no effective result.

By engaging the city's technologically literate in the process, however, Newsom saw such problems literally evaporate. In one instance, citizens with the skills to create apps relevant to a recycling effort had online resources ready to go "within hours," Newsom said -- a far cry from "the years, if not decades" that otherwise might have gone into governmentally administered projects, at a cost of untold millions.

The idea of willing, well-intentioned citizens stepping up in the digital world to do the work that fewer and fewer people are willing to do in the physical world is attractive, but problematic. True, the avenues for action in the physical world relay on slower methods; those avenues have long been effectively coopted by the powerful, who have made an art of deflecting the rage and the will of the people en masse. Also, it's easy to get discouraged when you can't sense the might or momentum of numbers, as can happen in the offline world.

All that might be challenged by the new communications paradigm of the online world. But any such major shift relies on the willingness and the good intentions of the participants.

It also relies on how well informed they might be. In the book, Newsom addresses this in some detail, discussing how a "filter bubble" unobtrusively blocks our access to a full range of viewpoints. This is as much an online problem (Google or Facebook "editing out" links, feeds, and suggestions based on the pattern of our online activities) as offline (the so-called "liberal media" providing biased or incomplete coverage -- a phenomenon more readily observable on Fox News than "liberal" outlets, but, Newsom notes, the problem is the same either way. If you're being denied both (or all) sides of the story, you're being deprived of the crucial ability to access facts, opinions, and even lies and distortions that all crowd and shape the marketplace of ideas. The "filter bubble" weakens our own ability to filter and make sense of a complicated and noisy world; moreover, because such filters function based on our own browser histories, we're unwittingly forced into an echo chamber of similar ideas, never a good idea for anyone interested in truly critical thinking.

There are other uncertainties. One major point of interest for the Microsoft employees was the issue of privacy. If citizens go online to be active in government -- to organize, to keep one another informed, perhaps one day even to vote as a matter of course -- couldn't individual privacy suffer?

It's a possibility, of course. But as Newsom pointed out, privacy means one thing to digital immigrants and another to digital natives. Moreover, transparency in how things are done can help to safeguard privacy. "As it is, privacy has become currency," Newsom noted. "You give up a little more of your privacy for the latest feature. But what's being done with your information?" The book goes into the question in more detail, citing the Wikileaks controversy sparked when government documents were posted for all to see -- documents that were never meant to be seen by anyone. The nature of the exposed documents in itself was part of the core controversy. Isn't it a form of double-dealing for a government to put on one face in public and another in private?

Ariana Huffington addresses this in the book, telling Newsom, "[W]hat Wikileaks showed was, there's often a huge discrepancy between what government claims is happening and what is actually going on."

Rather than viewing the flow between privacy and transparency as a zero-sum game, the two can coordinate and become mutually reinforcing: "Transparency and privacy can go hand in hand."

But is this an interpretation (or prognostication) that lends itself to credible real-world results?

I was in the audience to hear Newsom deliver his comments, and some of what he said struck me as starry-eyed. Other comments he made rang of politics; indeed, Newsom's delivery and affect seemed highly political in that he spoke with a Clinton-like rasp and littered his comments with folksy phrases like, "You can't make this up." He struck me as someone with an eye on the election cycle of 2016 or maybe even 2020.

That's not to say Newsom didn't have important and valuable things to say. His book, which weighs in at 236 plain-spoken pages, is quick and cogent. You get a sense that here's someone who really is telling it like it is -- rather like Obama's voice in "The Audacity of Hope." (Of course, Newsom noted, as sincere and authentic as a politician might sound during election season, once the results are in and he or she takes office, the candidate is transformed into the same sort of officeholder he or she probably pointed to as problematic: Remote, shielded from much actual public interaction, sequestered in the privileges and overwhelming demands of power, lost behind ranks of assistants and within a bureaucratic labyrinth. That, too, he suggests, could be changed by the power and immediacy of the digital tools we now possess.)

But the human animal is still the same organism it's always been. Nothing has changed our fundamental nature; not the printing press, or the advent of television. The power of the online world to allow us to unite is matched by its power to fragment us; Newsom noted with approval that consumers now buy music by the song, and not the album. Each individual can take what he wants and offer what he has to contribute in the online world's ongoing, over-arcing, multimedia conversation.

It's a wonderful thing that online tools could force governments into real engagement and accountability with the governed, and it's inevitable that digital technology will, for a time and to some degree, have a real impact. But how long will it be before the same players play the same games to obfuscate, obstruct, and divert? If real-life town hall meetings are, as Newsom says they are, stuffed with loud and angry proponents to such a degree that ordinary citizens are drowned out, how will online fora be any different? Simply glance at any comment field online and it's obvious how little clear critical thinking, and how much vitriol, is floating free in the digital environment, just as in the offline world.

Newsome outlines valuable tools in "Citizenville," and he prescribes effective ways of using those tools, but part of the genetic makeup of the powerful is knowing how to dilute just such tools, create dissonance out of a fear of mass accord that might threaten them, and mute the "voice of the people," often by pretending to speak in that voice. (Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly are masters of putting common resentments into rustic vocabulary and making millions from it. But does that make them one with their white, working man followings? Or are they simply one more variant of the much-reviled "elite" they continually bash?)

In such a climate, what would it mean to crowd source solutions, or innovations, or even legislation? When a goodly fraction of the country's people (on both sides of the political spectrum) literally wants to kill the "other guys" (their own countrymen, no less), can even the digital revolution mend the divide? Are we ready for Newsom's ideas, or will they, too, be bucked off the back of an increasingly restless and uncivil national populace?

We Americans are the original great social experiment. I'd like to believe we still have the gumption and creativity to try new things, especially when we have the new technology and virtual infrastructure at our disposal to do so. But the saying tells us we get the government we deserve; if our government is stuck in 1973, too bovine and lethargic to move forward in meaningful ways, does that reflect all too accurately on us? Is it truly the case that we're nimble and vigorous only when it comes to our diversions, our amusements, and our personal gratification, and we've forgotten how to work... and, more to the point, how to work together?

We shall see.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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