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The Right to Fail in Citizenville

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In the spirit of great movie trilogies, I want to bring us back to the plight of Selena Kyle and her need for a “clean slate”.   How does Anne Hathaway’s character in the Dark Knight movies move on from her criminal past and live the life of a productive citizen?  How do we create ability for people to move past their mistakes, while not encouraging reckless or anti-social behavior?  Shouldn’t we all have some limited “right to fail” to encourage us to take risks and innovate.

I was thinking about this “right to fail” as I recently read California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom’s thought provoking book Citizenville: How to take the town square digital and reinvent government.   Newsom provides a powerful and important contribution on how technology innovation can transform the way individuals engage with government.    Newsom articulates in the book that “government today is paralyzed by a fear of failure.”  If government could embrace the entrepreneurial spirit that failure is required, then we could encourage individuals to take risks and bring innovation to our democratic institutions.  This idea of needing to create structure for a tolerance of failure intuitively makes sense to me.  However, Newsom comes to some conclusions on privacy with which I do not agree.  He takes a position on privacy best summed up by his quote of Guy Kawalski (Apple’s former chief evangelist) , “Don’t do bad things”. 

Newsom tells the story of how he was criticized on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle for emails he sent to Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin.  The transparency required of Newsom as a public official had a chilling effect and he cut back substantially on his use of email afterwards.  He said restricting the use of email particularly impacted efficiency, and this effect of increased transparency “has made government and diplomacy much more challenging and ultimately less honest”.  He reflects that with the direction technology is headed, we will all have to face this type of transparency in our online activities.  However, he writes, “(f)or millennials, the notion of going back to a world where privacy reigns is unthinkable”.   He believes the functionality from the technology is too powerful to be compromised by concerns for privacy.  

Newsom writes, “I have a three-year-old daughter, and when she grabs my iPad and starts swiping through, playing games and looking at pictures and changing the music, it’s absolutely clear that new generations see the world completely differently than my generation does.”  I have to agree the new generation sees the world differently, but judging from the “Danger – Keep Out” sign on my 10 year old son’s bedroom door, I do not think it is “completely different”.  

We do not live in a world where privacy is either on or off.  Instead, we need to look for new solutions to give us the power of the technology, but also preserve the efficiency and honesty Newsom noted he lost.   The examples in Citizenville of how technology can transform democracy are inspiring and all easily within our reach.  As with most other aspects of our lives, technology itself does not create benefits or risks, but instead those are created by how the technology is used.  We have the obligation to find creative ways to use technology to get the full benefits of the functionality, while also protecting the individual’s right to fail.  There are some possible improvements we can look towards that would foster innovation and economic growth by providing people a protected place in which to take risks and innovate.  In my next blog entry, I will explore some ideas people have for accomplishing both of these goals.