Soon after his on-stage talk in front of 300 people at South By Southwest yesterday, Newark Mayor Cory Booker headed over to a tent set up in a parking lot where a bunch of programmers were hiding from the sun and taking part in a hackathon. With a DJ sound-testing loud house music in the background, the future Senate hopeful and “new media politician” sat on a couch and talked to me about his visions for a more open democracy empowered by technology while intermittently inhaling a salad.
I started by asking the man tipped as a future Presidential contender – and owner of 1.3 million Twitter followers – to elaborate on an idea he discussed in his address about everyday citizens needing to be more like entrepreneurs.
I found it interesting that you said everyone these days should have an entrepreneurial mindset. Why do you think that?
Because the true breadth of human potential is our ability to innovate, create, to start new endeavours, whether it’s in art, whether it’s in technology, whether it’s in just manifesting your dreams or your ideas. And I think people don’t conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs themselves. It doesn’t have to be about starting a company and raising profits. Some of the most valuable teachers in Newark are the ones that don’t just accept the box that they get put into but rather innovate… And they end up sharing an innovation with another teacher, it goes viral in a sense, and suddenly the culture of that school is improved. That’s what I love to see.
How well do you think the structures around education and government are set up for encouraging that sort of mindset?
They’re not. Big government unfortunately is behind the game. I was reading Gavin Newsom’s book “Citizenville,” where he really frames this point that people have this vending machine attitude about government: They put a coin in, and they get something out. That’s not where the rest of society is. The rest of society is a much more collaborative environment where we are having feedback groups of information where I’m a partner in establishing something. There’s not the rulers and the ruled – information holders and the people who have information passed down to them – there’s a much more sharing concept.
But these are age-old problems – politics and partisanship – although it might be more severe now than it has been in the past. What can technology do, or the people using technology, that is actually going to have a chance at breaking up those crystallized realities?
The person who interviewed me before said, ‘What do you think about the criticism of you travelling a lot?’ I mean, here I am in Austin, and I’m the mayor of Newark for crying out loud. The woman asked the question, and the gentleman answered by saying, ‘I guess we see what you do every day.’ In the old world, I could have snuck out of the city, gone on vacation, gone on the Appalachian Trail, as they say, and people might not have noticed. Today, people see what I’m doing. It’s a transparent thing. At the same time, I could pull out my cellphone, like I did a few minutes ago, see constituents complaining about something and address it right now. In fact, I’m crowdsourcing their eyes to see things before my departmental directors see it. So government now’s suddenly starting to move a lot quicker, because you’ve got more participants, collaborators, in making the city of Newark better.
So what’s your definition of collaborative government in that sense? Because hasn’t democracy always been a collaborative process to some degree?
No! It’s a vending machine. I put a coin in – my vote – you give me something back. It’s a one-way relationship. I go to a Town Hall meeting not to have conversations with you about sharing ideas, not to look at you giving me access to open-source data so I can go off and be entrepreneurial.
When government’s at its best, it’s collaborative, getting access to information. The company Keyhole, they used government satellites, government data to create some innovation. Google buys Keyhole and calls it Google Earth. That’s a much more collaborative environment, where there’s a back and forth. So what I’m seeing as Mayor is you’re offering up problems and everybody’s working on them, not just waiting for government to do something about it.
Is your model as a very social media-friendly and -active mayor transferrable for other leaders, for other politicians?
My short answer is yes. But I don’t have a data set yet. [Laughs] Social media has allowed me to better influence if not control my own media. So if I had to do something five years ago, I’d have to call a press conference, and my information to the people would be filtered through media outlets. Now, I could try to do a bunch of town hall meetings, but at the end of the day I might be able to meet with a thousand people a day. Well, now I can communicate with millions in the span of a day.
You mentioned on stage earlier on that there was one Tweet you sent that you immediately regretted. It was the Winston Churchill quote about what makes a good speech [“It should be long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest”]. What about that part of Twitter – the quick-twitch part, the impulse – doesn’t that have the power to undermine some of the processes of democracy that are meant to be more deliberative?
No! All of us say dumb things every day. If I happen to do it in an interview, it gets captured. If I happen to do it right now with you, you’d capture it.
Feel free by the way.
[Laughs] So Twitter is another platform. It’s a TV, it’s a radio, it’s journalism. So let’s not be so afraid anymore. In fact, what I think Twitter does is it makes people more tolerant of imperfections, because they’ve seen that I can be stupid and corny sometimes, they see I can be human, that I have issues, as opposed to this soundbite politics that we’re in right now… I think social media is going to help us break through our reactionary, soundbite politics and get to a more tolerant, substantive, constructive politics.
I have a question about Waywire [of which Booker is a founder and spokesman]. Could it ever become a problem for you as a man holding a high position of public office to be seen to be advocating for one particular platform, and especially as you go up in the ranks – if you end up in the Senate, if you end up in the White House. Could you still be the guy who is effectively selling Waywire?
Number one, all throughout history, you’ve had politicians in the media business going in and out of politics. The most recent one I can think of is [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg… But having people with business experience in politics is phenomenal. In fact, I will be a better advocate in the United States Senate – should I go there – for tech entrepreneurs, for innovators, for VC people who are trying to grow companies, because now I have more first-hand experience. I understand the media a lot better through this experience. Technology I understand a lot better. So this is not in any way undermining my job as Mayor, because very few people work round the clock more than I do. To me it’s a positive experience.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]