Future Shock

In the gushing, breathless copy that justifies Gavin Newsom’s lead spot in his publisher’s catalogue, we learn that “government cannot keep functioning in a twentieth-century mindset.” We are informed further that Newsom, the present lieutenant governor of California, and formerly the youngest mayor of San Francisco in more than a century, came to his tirelessly sanguine view of digital democracy by overseeing the digital renovation of San Francisco’s city hall. In a flourish as logical as it is grammatical, we learn that “Newsom’s quest to modernize one of America’s most modern cities—and the amazing results he achieves—form the backbone of this far-reaching book.”

Alas, this dubiously signifying nonsense does not let up between the covers of Citizenville. To say that Newsom’s ruminations on technology and politics come in fifty shades of bullshit is to give this all-too-representative study in online civic boosterism too much credit. Newsom’s bullshit is solidly and tediously monochrome. The color itself is hard to make out: It could be the cosmopolitan hue of Thomas Friedman’s frequent-flier pass, or that of a rustic tablecloth in a Davos chalet (Newsom must be the only person on earth to have had an “epiphany” while in Davos), or, perhaps, that of the glossy business card of Cisco’s “chief globalization officer”—“a man who makes his living thinking outside the box”—whom Newsom quotes approvingly.

Written in bombastic but wooden prose, this lazy tome of techno-populism consists of random entries from Newsom’s busy calendar (“Early in 2012, I spent a weekend at the Aspen Institute, discussing ideas about leadership and governance”), shameless name-dropping mixed with pseudo-intellectual gibberish (“as Abraham Lincoln used to say”; “David Cameron . . . described his own vision of a peoplecentric new era in a 2010 TED talk”; “social media, Al Gore told me, is a ‘saving grace for democracy’”), and whatever it takes to get elected in California. (Have you ever wondered what George Clooney thinks of Facebook? Me neither.)

Newsom’s intellectual plans unravel in the book’s very first paragraph, as he airs the profound question that prompted him—or perhaps his ghostwriter-cum-collaborator Lisa Dickey—to lift a pen (or iPad stylus) and start writing. “Over the past several years,” he notes, “I’ve found myself wondering: Why is it that people are more engaged than ever with each other—through Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, text messaging—but less engaged with their government?” Just a tiny hint from his publisher could have saved Newsom from composing this disaster of a book: Pinterest is more fun when used to alert buddies to funny pictures of cats than to liaise with anonymous government bureaucrats. Yes, it’s really that simple.

Newsom has produced enough sound bites here to fill a TED talk (“One-way is dead”; “This is the age of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube”; “The future is sharing”; “PDF is a horse and buggy in a racecar world”). But what is this book about? It’s hard to say for sure. Newsom himself seems undecided on the issue, occasionally succumbing to pangs of existential doubt about his own authenticity. “This is big talk, but what do I really mean?” he wonders out loud, anticipating the one big question sure to haunt the reader on almost every page of this ambitious treatise on tweeting and nothingness. “A win-win-win situation”—his phrase, not mine—this book definitely isn’t.

Nominally, at least, Newsom’s objective is to take the tool kit of his many friends in Silicon Valley and fix America’s political system, with its moribund institutions, its archaic bureaucracy, its apathetic citizens, its corrupt special interests, and especially its despicable ruling political class—that one hideous club that Newsom hopes to join and destroy from within. This power elite, much to his chagrin, features too many rhetoricians and too few engineers. He hates lawyers and “screamers”; he loves quiet hackers and tinkerers who get things done. The kind of accountability demanded by democratic politics, you see, can lacerate a hacker’s soul.

So how do we “innovate our way out of this mess”? Well, this man has a bold and original vision: “We have to learn to ‘think different.’” “Thinking different” for Newsom means two things: first, abandoning the progressive spirit of his own party (the Democrats) in favor of the libertarian ideal of small government, and, second, talking about politics as if it were on par with manufacturing widgets or rewarding rats in a lab experiment.

One thing that Gavin Newsom hates with a passion is government. No, not the part that gets him to Davos—only the boring administrative parts that perform the functions that individual citizens, armed with the right tools and facts, can do on their own. He is the kind of cool, progressive guy who, instead of celebrating public institutions that help deliver gas and electricity into our homes, would celebrate YouTube for teaching us how to generate electricity by biking in our kitchens.

After all, if we can make our own cheese, knit our own sweaters, and homeschool our children by having them watch TED talks for days on end, why bother with those pesky public institutions? Thus, Newsom wants “people to bypass government” and “take matters into their own hands.” In a typical, Lincolnesque passage, he writes that “we have to disenthrall ourselves . . . of the notion that politicians and government institutions will solve our problems. . . . We have to be prepared to solve our own problems.” In short, we’ll all be like New Yorkers after Hurricane Sandy—only with better Wi-Fi coverage.

Margaret Thatcher would surely approve of Newsom’s message. So would David Cameron. In fact, many of Newsom’s proposals simply rehash Cameron’s idea of “the Big Society,” whereby instead of relying on the government to fix potholes in their neighborhoods, citizens are expected to do everything themselves, for the government has been starved to death and can’t do those things anyway. But since Newsom serves all these ideas under the spicy sauce of social media and technological progress, the underlying libertarianism of his program is far less visible. Citizens, rejoice: Thanks to your smartphones, you can earn points—“innobucks”—for fixing those potholes (“Innobucks is like Angry Birds, but for democracy”). And, if Progress permits, soon you’ll be able to manufacture the tools for road repairs right inside your bedroom—just leave your 3-D printer on.

Newsom’s political philosophy is the wisdom of crowds in action; most inanities in this book belong to someone else. To buttress his assault on institutions of all stripes, he quotes a wide range of Internet gurus with a known anti-institutional bias of their own: Clay Shirky, Don Tapscott, Tim O’Reilly. Newsom—a true progressive radical—even confesses to having great respect for the Tea Party. He interviews the counterculture guru Stewart Brand—the spiritual father of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopia—who tells him that “I want government fixed, and the Tea Partiers want government fixed. . . . They take government seriously, and lots of people don’t.”

“Fixing government” for Newsom and Brand means getting rid of its vast bureaucracy. But if the Tea Partiers, steeped in Ayn Rand, want to dismantle government bureaucracy because they hate government, Newsom and Brand want to dismantle it simply because they have the tools to do it. And this is where Newsom’s tract moves beyond mere callow publishing opportunism into a broader, more pernicious rejection of progressive ideas. The purely formal urge to overhaul government along notionally digital lines is a manifestation of what I call “solutionism”—a tendency to justify reforms of social and political institutions by invoking the easy availability of powerful technological fixes rather than by engaging in a genuine analysis of what, if anything, is ailing those institutions and how to fix it.

Solutionists are not interested in investigating the subtle but constitutive roles of supposed vices like bureaucracy, opacity, or inefficiency in enabling liberal subjects to pursue their own life projects. Solutionists simply want to eliminate those vices—and the institutions that produce them—because technology permits them to do so. In his discussion of bureaucracy, for example, Newsom doesn’t even bother with the standard Weberian explanation that bureaucracy is a decidedly modernist institution for minimizing nepotism and introducing some fairness and neutrality to public administration. Instead, he simply views bureaucracy as a consequence of inadequate technology, concluding that better technology will allow us to get rid of it altogether—and why shouldn’t we?

“Our government is clogged with a dense layer of bureaucracy,” he complains. “It’s like a clay layer, a filler that serves only to slow everything down. But technology can get rid of that clay layer by making it possible for people to bypass the usual bureaucratic morass.” In a very limited sense, Newsom is right: Modern technology does allow us to bypass “the usual bureaucratic morass.” But to fail to examine why that morass exists and simply proceed to eliminate it because we have the technology is to fall for a very narrow-minded, regressive, and (paradoxically enough) antimodern kind of solutionism.

Not surprisingly, Newsom hates the deliberative aspects of democratic politics; for him, if a problem can be solved through tinkering or engineering, we should halt all debates and simply invite the hackers to take the wheel (or, more likely, the command line). Such short-termism is typical of libertarianism; the unintended consequences of such hacks are simply bracketed out, to be dealt with by someone else, at some other time. The Silicon Valley types whom Newsom draws on, of course, have a nice alibi against any charges of short-termism: In 1996, Brand—along with fellow techno-prophets such as Kevin Kelly and Esther Dyson—established the Long Now Foundation, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that seeks to “creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”

That responsibility might need to be fostered at some earlier, intermediary stage—at which politicians can still be voted out of office, provided there are still elections—is not a thought that occurs to our technology gurus. In the here and now, however, they can’t wait to use technology to get things done; for our techno-prophets, the talking shops of democracy are too slow and cumbersome.

This vulgar and myopic utilitarianism—concerned only with short-term efficiency—is most visible in Newsom’s exhortation to enliven the political process by making it resemble computer games. Newsom is impressed with online games such as FarmVille, in which players manage virtual farms and earn digital cash. For him, it’s the right model for getting people to care about local politics. “Instead of taking care of a fictional farm, why can’t we create a game in which you take care of your actual neighborhood or your town?” he wonders. Newsom is particularly excited about the possibility of rewarding citizens with virtual points—redeemable for real products or cash—for their good behavior.

He is not alone in such excitement (gaming guru Jane McGonigal laid out this same argument in her 2010 book, Reality Is Broken), but here, too, Newsom is completely blind to the politics of his preferred solutions. “Gamification”—as this ugly trend is known—simply extends the logic of the market into realms that were previously the prerogative of ethics and morality. In this scheme, good behavior is no longer framed through the language of citizen duty; it’s framed through the language of monetary incentives. This substitution might have some adverse effects on citizens’ character, but, even more important, market-driven motivations might simply be ineffective.

It’s one thing to ask the citizens of a small town to accept a nuclear-waste site in return for a cash payment; it’s quite another to ask them to accept it as an act of good citizenship. Studies show that more people accept the proposal for such a site when prompted to think of their citizen duties—and not of their bank accounts. Newsom doesn’t even grasp this problem, believing that if only we could give a small award to anyone who doesn’t litter in the streets, we’d be saving civilization. That, following such a scheme, we might need to start offering similar awards in all spheres of life—if only to maintain the degree of civility we have lost to the logic of the market—does not much preoccupy him.

Likewise, many banalities that he presents as facts are dubious generalizations. Where Thomas Friedman would quote a taxi driver to support his grandiose reflections on the human condition, Newsom just quotes Friedman himself. Is it actually true that “transparency leads to trust,” as Newsom claims? Many political theorists—most recently, the British philosopher Onora O’Neill—have argued that the opposite is true: More transparency in the political process might make voters even more cynical about their elected representatives, thus decreasing trust. But empirical evidence is not Newsom’s strong suit.

For someone who’s recently moved from city to state politics, Newsom is surprisingly insensitive to the idea that some problems simply can’t be solved by mayors or city halls. Instead, he clings to a weird form of parochial localism, assumimg that, if only all problems could be articulated at the level of the city or the street or the neighborhood, there would be no need to operate at larger scales. In the long term, however, the shrinking of the political imagination that accompanies this reduction of the global and the national to the local—enabled in no small part by the ubiquity of location sensors and social media—might prove lethal to progressive politics.

The reason why the entirety of Newsom’s universe fits into the tiny precincts of Citizenville is because no one there is fighting for big national or global issues such as gun control or gender equality or human rights. Instead, we are all fixing potholes and, on good days, earning innobucks. He says as much himself: “Citizen engagement in the twenty-first century won’t be about congressional and presidential elections; it will be about personal involvement at the most local levels. . . . It will be about individuals organizing themselves.” But organizing to do what exactly?

As one nears the end of all this just-in-time philosophizing about digital town squares, Newsom’s working style becomes clear: He simply throws a Silicon Valley buzzword at a political issue and waits to see if it sticks. (“We don’t want to abolish the notion of town halls, but how can we augment them?”) History, philosophy—none of this matters. It’s all about looking innovation friendly. Newsom enthuses about the immense potential of feedback loops (enabled by cell phones) to improve governance, as if he’s never heard of cybernetics and systems theory—and the disastrous impact that they had on the US foreign and military policy in the 1960s.

In fact, nowhere does he raise the possibility that feedback loops produced by digital technologies might also be harming governance. Consider a 2011 survey by a British insurance company in which 11 percent of respondents claimed to have seen an incident but chose not to report it, worried that higher crime statistics for their neighborhood would significantly reduce the value of their properties. In this case, the quality of future data is intricately dependent on how much of the current data is disclosed; unconditional “openness” is the wrong move here—precisely because of feedback loops.

It’s this lack of any basic curiosity about the technological solutions that he advocates—and especially about their unintended consequences—that makes Newsom’s account so suspect. Public institutions such as the BBC might be terribly inefficient and scandal prone, but they still do a better—and more systematic—job at rooting out corruption than Newsom’s citizen-hackers armed with databases and sophisticated visualization tools.

To take just one among countless counterexamples, no one was more enthused about making government data available to an army of “armchair auditors” than David Cameron. Citizen-led transparency was supposed to pave the way to his Big Society, even if this connection has never been made very explicit. In reality, however, “armchair auditors” have not shown up—not least because the government dumped too much data that was too hard to examine without expending more effort than amateurs could afford.

Newsom’s incuriosity about such inconvenient truths bodes ill for much more than American publishing. He has already been bruited as the likeliest candidate for the governorship of California. And with the state’s incumbent governor, Jerry Brown, now under treatment for prostate cancer, the prospect that this anti-intellectual tech ingenue might soon be making policy for the world’s eighth-largest economy is the sort of terrifying outcome one associates with a particularly gruesome computer game.

Evgeny Morozov is the author of the forthcoming To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (PublicAffairs).