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.
Citizenville illuminates some of the problems with big-idea Internet books as a genre. It can sometimes take up to three years from start to finish to publish a book, but digital technology moves at the speed of fiber optics. So books about the Internet have to try to be broad and idea-based enough to remain relevant, while using enough specific examples to remain true. Newsom’s book fails to strike the proper balance, as many of his examples of innovation—Farmville among them—are old news by now.
What’s more, Newsom’s lessons about transparency and gamification may make sense in a city like San Francisco, but it’s unclear how well they scale to other towns, where there are presumably fewer Foursquare-addicts and underemployed programmers. Newsom, like many cyberoptimists, seems to believe that if an idea is successful in one place at one time, it will succeed in all places at all times. I’m not sure whether this is a function of disingenuousness, or of naïveté. But I wish he’d consider that the best of all possible digital worlds isn’t as inevitable as he tends to think.
Then again, unchecked pessimism about technology’s potential can prove just as problematic as blind optimism. Evgeny Morozov derides gamification, as he derides many, many other ideas and their cheerleaders, in his ruthless new book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. He defines solutionism as “an unhealthy preoccupation with sexy, monumental, and narrow-minded solutions…to problems that are extremely complex, fluid, and contentious.”
For Morozov, the gamification of civic engagement is a prime example of what he sees as a dangerous pattern in tech, because it emphasizes “fun” while forgoing serious consideration of long-term consequences. He asserts that, if governments encourage citizens to focus more on their self-interest than their sense of duty, it will eventually narrow people’s conception of the common good, and can even make them less likely to do other societally necessary things in the absence of incentives.
The “Quantified Self” movement also takes a beating here; Morozov calls its adherents “datasexuals” and says they are promoting a narcissistic trend that will ultimately undermine the privacy of everyone—even those of us who don’t yet tweet our sleep cycles. Technology shapes character, Morozov argues, and before it hurts us all, we must collectively unlearn the habit of solutionism—“by transcending the limits it imposes on our imaginations and by rebelling against its value system.”
Morozov seemed to come out of nowhere in 2011 with his widely discussed debut The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. The book introduced the mainstream to the term “cyberutopians”—those Silicon Valley enthusiasts who synonymize technology with progress, and the Web with democracy. Morozov showed how Internet tools are used by authoritarian regimes to actually impinge on civil liberties just as often as they are used by freedom-seeking revolutionaries. The Net Delusion was a welcome response to the months of punditry and intellectual oversimplification surrounding the Arab Spring of the year before.
This time around, his adversaries are much more abstract. “I don’t have the luxury of tackling a clear-cut issue in the current book…gone is the moral simplicity of fighting authoritarianism,” Morozov writes in his postscript. “In this book, what’s truly wicked are not the problems—those may not even exist—but the solutions proposed to address them.”