How to Take The Town Square Digital?

This week I read “Citizenville, How To Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government” written by Gavin Newsom. I also read a blog by David Graeber: “Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse”. Graeber is author of “The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement” (still on my ‘want to read’ list).

Graeber is a a anthropologist, playing a part in the Occupy Movement. Newsom is a successful entrepreneur, former mayor of San Francisco and current lieutenant governor of California. His book Citizenville is inspired by the work of authors like Government as a Platform by Tim O’Reilly.

What do the two authors have in common? The answer: both focus on the transformation of democracy in America and recently published a book about it. On Goodreads The Democracy Project is introduced as “bold rethinking of the most powerful political idea in the world—democracy—as seen through the lens of the most transformative political movements of our time and the story of how radical democracy can yet transform America”. The introduction of Newsom’s book: “Citizenville is the story of how ordinary citizens can use new digital tools to dissolve political gridlock and transform American democracy”.

The name of Citizenville is chosen after Farmville, the popular game where players work with their friends to tend farms and animals to advance to the next level. Newsom focuses on government that is not making optimal use of the fact that people are far more interested in engaging with social media than in engaging with democracy processes. He pleads for a more tech-enabled government that uses the principles of succesful tech platforms (like Yelp) and the principles of gamification in order to engage citizens and solve problems.

Citizenville is very accessible, easy readable and full of succes stories. It’s a procession of all the remarkable digital trends of the last decade: the iphone and the app store, apps built with all sorts of open data, twitter enabled revolutions, wikileaks, crowdfunding initiatives like KickStarter etcera.

Newsom shows a glimpse of failures, but the very dominant message is techno-optimism. Evgeny Morozov even describes the book as a lazy tome of techno-populism that consists of random entries. Beth Noveck is far more positive than Morozov but still emphasis in her book review that Newsom doesn’t acknowledge that getting to his kind of decentralized, participatory, tech-enabled democracy is a long and uncertain path. In the words of Lydia Depillis “Citizenville is a manifesto for why technological innovation matters. And, like many manifestos—especially techno-triumphalist ones—Newsom glosses over some major complications of the overall program that he espouses.”

They are all right in their critics. The questions about privacy issues for example are too easily ignored by Newsom and his statement that transparency will lead to more trust is not based on any fact based research. In my opinion the words ‘reinvent government’ in the subtitle are therefor too ambitious and should have been left out. The book is far from being a master plan or blue print of how to reinvent government.

The question is whether we should want a master plan or blue print to reinvent government? Who wrote the master plan or blue print for inventing internet or social media? Or to put it in the words of David Graeber in his blog Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse: “When has social change ever happened according to someone’s blueprint? It’s not as if a small circle of visionaries in Renaissance Florence conceived of something they called “capitalism”, figured out the details of how the stock exchange and factories would someday work, and then put in place a program to bring their visions into reality.”

As a techno-optimist myself I liked reading the book of Newsom. Although the blurbs on the dust jacket of the book are far too positive, but that’s what blurbs are for: promoting the book in every respect in order to increase sales. For those interested: Amazon mentions the blurbs as editorial reviews.

Like Newsom I see so many inspiring examples of how collaboration between people can take place in an effective way outside the borders of the hierarchal, formal institutions. There are many books that describe these forms of peer to peer production and their consequences in a far more profound way than Newsom does. Unfortunately, but not coincidental, those books are less readable than Citizenville. Being a politician I have learned that readability is very important. So credits for Newsom on that aspect.

My suggestion: read both Newsom and Graeber and start acting now without worrying to much about master plans and blue prints. To paraphrase Graeber: we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded the capitalist system was the most effective blue print for our society.