At a tech conference in Lake Tahoe three years ago, Eric Schmidt gave a talk that included a startling statistic. Schmidt—who was then CEO of Google, so we took his word for it—announced that every two days, we create as much digital content as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. By “we,” of course, he meant those of us who are connected to the Internet: about two billion of the world’s seven billion people. And by “create content,” he meant “upload data.” Lots and lots of data. Five billion gigabytes of data, every two days.
A not insignificant amount of that “content” is created by debates about what this constant hyper-connectivity is doing to our brains, our bodies, our children, our relationships, and our sense of ourselves in the natural world. These debates are led by an increasingly entrenched class of cyberpundits eager to help clarify and contextualize our everyday digital acts. Technology advances so rapidly, and then gets folded into our daily lives so effortlessly, that it can feel like a force of nature, or a political movement—one that we can join, or avoid, but not one that we could control. The pundits want to convince us that we are indeed in the driver’s seat—and then steer us toward their own particular visions for the digital future.
Lately, the discussion has focused more directly on the data itself—those five billion gigabytes of “likes” and retweets being created every single day. Every time we search on Google or Amazon, or talk on Twitter or Facebook, that information is recorded somewhere: where does it go, and to whom does it belong? Could we use it for a higher good? Could it mean the end of privacy? Could it mean the end of death? What’s coming next? What should come next? A veritable data-dump of new books, by a representative sample of cyberpundits, attempt to answer these questions and more.
One of the breeziest reads among the books is California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom’s Citizenville: How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government, written with the help of Lisa Dickey. In it, Newsom laments that, at a time when people are more engaged with each other (online) than ever before, voter turnout has never been lower. Trust in government is down, and, while elected leaders say they know what their constituents want, they’re only guessing. No surprise there, says Newsom. Most politicians only use online tools to connect with the little guy when they’re campaigning for his vote. Web 2.0 is exponentially improving Americans’ daily lives, Newsom writes, but government is stuck in 1.0 mode: “Government right now is functioning on the cutting edge—of 1973.” Burn!
Newsom’s solution, in a few keywords: transparency, data, creativity, innovation, and gamification. Clay Shirky’s term “cognitive surplus” is evoked a lot in this book. So are a pastiche of insights on Web 2.0 from the likes of Web publishing magnate Arianna Huffington, Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, and apparent paparazzi expert George Clooney. So are frequent reminders of how Newsom himself has already encouraged innovation, first as mayor of San Francisco and now as lieutenant governor of California. (“And whatever might come next” is left unsaid.)
In general, Newsom frames his technological solutions as easy, fun, and unreservedly benign, which makes him a very likable but lightweight cyberpundit indeed. But of course, Newsom is likely not vying for expert status, or a lucrative consulting gig—he merely wants to borrow some ideas from the tech industry and overlay them onto the civil-service world, and give his public image a tech-savvy sheen in the process.
He takes the title Citizenville from the inane and addictive online game “Farmville”—Newsom hopes that people will participate more if they are given gamelike incentives to do so. (One of the book’s chapters is titled “Angry Birds for Democracy.”) Maybe civic-minded developers would build crime-mapping apps for free as part of a programming contest. Maybe citizens would report potholes if they were given online currency to be traded in at local businesses. Maybe government staffers could participate in some kind of Yelp-like scoreboard. “If the Bronx’s DMV comes from behind to overtake Brooklyn for the highest ratings, do you think that will get Brooklyn’s competitive juices flowing?” Newsom asks, answering, “I certainly do.” Anyone who has been to the Brooklyn DMV might disagree.