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The United States of Google?


Imagine Google as the polling place that never closes, except now we—and not the pollsters—control the questions and our opinions

What if a Google Guy were President?

Barack Obama may be the closest thing ever in the White House. The President is making weekly Web videos, his staff uses Twitter, and the White House has started a blog for daily developments. This may be just the start. On its Web site, the White House is promising more communication, transparency, and participation. If it can deliver on those promises, the Administration could make government more Google-y at least in terms of openness and collaboration.

But I wonder whether the Google (GOOG) worldview could bring more profound change to government. If the geeks take over the world—and they will—we could enter an era of scientific rationality in Washington. Other nonpoliticians have improved government. Michael Bloomberg runs New York City as a business. Arnold Schwarzenegger rules California with the power of personality. A Google guy might just run government as a service to solve problems.

I think I saw a preview of government under geeks at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, where Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin talked about their efforts to create cheap, clean energy through the company's foundation, Google.org. After hearing former Vice-President Al Gore talk about his prescriptions for energy and the ecology—carbon taxes, regulation, prohibition—I went up the mountain to get the Google view.

If Google Were a Country

The contrast was stark. To summarize if not oversimplify their vantage points: Where Gore demands taxes and regulation, the Google team proposes invention and investment. Gore & Co. want to raise the cost of carbon—the cost of polluting—whereas the Google team wants to lower the cost of energy, producing clean electricity for less than the cost of power generated with coal. RE

Still, we see different worldviews at work. "You can't succeed just out of conservation because then you won't have economic development," Google.org head Larry Brilliant said. "Find a way to make electricity—not to cut back on it but to have more of it than you ever dreamed of." More power than you ever dreamed of. Create and manage abundance rather than control scarcity—as ever, that is the Google approach. Whereas Gore talks about what we shouldn't do, Google talks about what we can do. There, we see the contrast between the politician's brain and the engineer's. Google people start with a problem and look for a solution. They identify a need, find an opportunity, and then systemically, logically, and aggressively attack it with innovation.

In power or not, Google and the Internet will have a profound impact on how government is run, on its relationship with us, and on our expectations of it. Now that we have the technological means to open up government and make every action transparent, we must insist on a new ethic of openness. I say we should abolish the Freedom of Information Act so we can turn it inside out. Why should we have to ask for information from our government? The government should have to ask to keep it from us.

Raising the Trust Level

Government needs a new and transparent attitude: Officials and agencies should blog and engage in open conversations with constituents. They should Webcast every meeting, since technology now makes that easy. David Weinberger, author of Everything's Miscellaneous, decreed: "There is an inverse relationship between control and trust. The more our leaders trust us with information, the more we will trust them with government." Right now, there's too little trust in both directions.

I want government to implement tools like MyStarbucksIdea (SBUX) and Dell (DELL) IdeaStorm, where customers tell these companies what to do and debate each others' suggestions. With a GovernmentStorm, citizens can make suggestions and share ideas, discussing them together as communities. The Obama Administration got a start on such collaboration when, during the transition, it created Change.gov, where it invited citizens to tell government what to do.

Britain has E-Petitions, a program launched by the Prime Minister's office in 2006. Among the petitions there: "Scrap the planned vehicle tracking and road pricing policy" got 1.8 million signatures. "Make breastfeeding in public legally acceptable for all babies and children" got almost 6,000. In the program's first year, 29,000 petitions were submitted and 5.8 million signatures collected. Here is a new way to involve the citizenry.

The Facebook of Democracy

I'm not suggesting government should be crowdsourced. I don't want rule by the mob, even the smart mob. The Internet requires filters, moderators, fact-checkers, and skeptics. So will the conversation that powers the country. That is the definition of a republic: representatives as filters. Those in power can use the Internet to become better informed about our needs and desires, and we can use it to speak and to contribute.

The Internet enables us to organize in new ways, around issues and not just party banners. People of any party or state, red or blue, can gather around the environment, taxes, education, health care, or crime as issues they want to tackle.

This requires a culture of personal political openness: We need to say where we stand to find others who stand there. I'd like to see citizens use the Web to establish personal political pages (PPPs) in which each of us may, if we choose, reveal our positions, opinions, and allegiances: the Facebook of democracy. I'd use a PPP to post my personal political statement online. In my case, I am a centrist Democrat; I voted for Hillary Clinton and then Obama; I want to actively support movements to protect the First Amendment against Federal Communications Commission censorship; I believe we must support an aggressive national broadband policy; and I support universal health insurance. On my PPP, I would explain and discuss issues, linking to blog posts I've written or to others who speak effectively for my views.

Organizing Without Organizations

Let's imagine millions of these pages that can be searched and analyzed to reveal a constant snapshot of the vox populi: Google as the polling place that never closes, except now we control the questions and our opinions, not pollsters. This new public square makes politics and public opinion a constant process instead of an annual or quadrennial event. It is a platform for organizing citizens. We can search Google for people who agree on a topic and try to gather them around a page, petition, group, politician, or organization. New York University professor Clay Shirky said in his book Here Comes Everyone that we are entering an era when we can organize without organizations. That is the political power of the Internet: It gives us the tools to find each other and coalesce around issues.

When I toyed with this notion on my blog, one commenter, TV industry analyst Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report, saw potential for reducing the power of the left-right pigeonholes in which we're too often stuck. Those pigeonholes, he said, make it "so much more difficult to form coalitions with those at radically different parts of the ideological spectrum—with born-again Christians who are leading activists on HIV/AIDS or Darfur genocide; with Wall Street free traders who want to liberalize immigration with Mexico; with Cato Institute libertarians who want to legalize narcotics."

Tyndall continued: "Personal political pages allow each of us to escape from the conventional left-right authoritarian-libertarian divisions of the political parties and the opinion pollsters. They allow us to align ourselves on each issue discretely, forming ad hoc, opportunistic coalitions, not binding ones."

Facebook was used to build a youth army for Barack Obama's run for the White House. The Internet and Wikipedia are used to inform the electorate. Meetup.com is used to help organize voters. These are tools that can help us collaborate and manage our government.

Google & Co. aren't taking over Washington. They're helping us take over.


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