Inside Out, Outside In, Perpetual Change


Reihan Salam, blogging about the Change Congress launch I covered last week, links to an interesting kitchen-sink post by Jeff Jarvis. He's working on a book, WWGD? (What Would Google Do?), attempting to reverse engineer the company and apply the stuff that works to, in this post, democracy. The bullet points…

* Abolish the Freedom of Information Act. Turn it inside-out. Why should we be asking for information about and from our government? The government should have to ask to keep things from us.

* Government officials and agencies should blog. This ethic of openness should go beyond official documents and files. Openness should be part of the work habit of government officials and conversation with constituents should be an ethic of government.

* Webcast government. The government should put C-SPAN out of business by videoing itself. Obama has said he wants to webcast agency meetings. I say the same should be the case for Congressional meetings and, yes, court sessions, including Supreme Court hearings. I've suggested that radio stations and newspapers should get citizens to record and podcast all their local government meetings.

* Start GovernmentStorm. If Dell and now Starbucks can do it, government should. These storms, powered by, enable customers to make suggestions and then to vote and comment on others' suggestions. In general, good ideas attract votes and conversations and bad ideas die on the vine.

* Personal political pages. Where we can, if we choose, reveal our stands, opinions, alliances, and allegiances and where we can—here I call on Doc Searls' Vendor Relationship Management project—manage our relationship with government, campaigns, and movements. Call it PRM, political relationship management.

* The dawn of the human politician. Speaking of Facebook… It will not be long before we see a candidate for office having to admit some youthful foible because it was memorialized on Facebook.

* Rule by engineers. At Davos, I was struck by the different approach to solving problems I saw from Google's founders. After hearing Al Gore trying to fix the environment through taxes and regulation, I heard the Google guys try to do the same through invention and investment in reducing the cost of power. Engineers don't waste their time with cool ideas. They seek a problem and solve it. And they are spoiled that in their world of technology, unlike the messier world of people, most problems do have solutions. Still, I look forward to rule by engineers. I think it will be more rational, more logical, less flashy (unless it's President Jobs we get). And because these are people of few words, we'll see more results than rhetoric. We can only hope.

I'd be lying if I claimed not to cringe at some of this. The "rule by engineers" concept seems periously close to the Simpsons episode where MENSA takes over Springfield. (It ended badly.) And I see an implicit lack of faith in the media's ability to root out failure and corruption in government. But maybe I'm not much of a reverse-engineer. I have trouble imagining transparency as a norm, and from there I have trouble imagining the vast majority of Americans making time to take advantage of this transparency. Voters split into two camps: those who want government to help them and don't want to watch the "sausage" being made, and voters who want government to leave them alone and are only interested in process as it illustrates why government should be butting out of their lives.

That said, the Calvinish elect who did take advantage of this hyper-transparency could do a lot of good. I'm not drunk on Jarvis's ideas, but I like where he's heading.

Related, here are Julian Sanchez's thoughts on the Change Congress launch.

UPDATE: Pseud confession: I thought of The Simpsons and it took Eric Alterman to remind me how Lippmanish this actually is.

Even "if there were a prospect" that people could become sufficiently well-informed to govern themselves wisely, he wrote, "it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered." In his first attempt to consider the issue, in "Liberty and the News" (1920), Lippmann suggested addressing the problem by raising the status of journalism to that of more respected professions. Two years later, in "Public Opinion," he concluded that journalism could never solve the problem merely by "acting upon everybody for thirty minutes in twenty-four hours." Instead, in one of the oddest formulations of his long career, Lippmann proposed the creation of "intelligence bureaus," which would be given access to all the information they needed to judge the government's actions without concerning themselves much with democratic preferences or public debate. Just what, if any, role the public would play in this process Lippmann never explained.

The Jarvis difference is that the masses would still be making decisions, just more informed ones.