“...it's very much like your trying to reach infinity. You know that it's there, you just don't know where-but just because you can never reach it doesn't mean that it's not worth looking for.”
― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
Almost exactly a year ago, I dove headlong into a quest. I'd been passionate about pioneering better government in California for years ,and I'd increasingly become curious about the role current technology could play in allowing new pathways for delivering public services -- particularly in reimagining education.
I had spent all my free time reading everything I could on the subject and running a few experiments in local schools. Yet I had massively more questions than answers about the whole gov 2.0 / reinventing government / government reform thing, and I wanted to devote my life full time to figuring out what this frontier really meant:
What if 20 years from now we’ll look back on the history of the internet and the frontier phase from the 1990’s to the early 21rst century will be seen as merely a warm-up to the radically larger shift in political economy that information technology allowed by revolutionizing the challenges of bureaucracy? What if the current barrier to that transformation wasn’t technical so much as institutional inertia?
I actually just left my job as a public finance analyst to move up to Silicon Valley because I deeply believe this opportunity reflects the most important challenge facing public servants today. That might sound a little crazy but the decision becomes obvious when I ask myself a simple question: what will excellence in public service look like in 10 years?
In many ways, it's intuitively obvious that we stand on the cusp between old and new institutional orders. About a century ago basic public institutions were transformed as we shifted from an agrarian to an industrial society in the late nineteenth century, and many of the basic bureaucracies we take for granted like professional police, food regulation, universal public schools and safe public water supplies were pioneered.
Since that time information technology has transformed how humans connect to one another, yet the basic structure of those bureaucracies has largely remained unchanged. I didn't know how precisely how this change would occur, but I knew this was a big wave and I wanted to do my part. The issues were complex, but the underlying dynamic struck me as simple. A Stag Hunt in game theoretic terms:
Jean-Jacques Rousseau described a situation in which two individuals go out on a hunt. Each can individually choose to hunt a stag or hunt a hare. Each player must choose an action without knowing the choice of the other. If an individual hunts a stag, he must have the cooperation of his partner in order to succeed. An individual can get a hare by himself, but a hare is worth less than a stag.
My good buddy from high school football -- and frequent co-conspirator on fun little creative projects -- David Thomas was eager to launch a venture and hopped on board. We were faced with many unknowns but knew one thing for certain: ultimately no proactive change was possible without the people of California. So we decided to walk the earth:
Vincent: You serious? You're really thinking about quitting?
Jules: The life?
Jules: Most definitely.
Vincent: Oh, fuck. What'cha gonna do, then?
Jules: Well, that's what I've been sitting here contemplating. First, I'm going to deliver this case to Marsellus, then, basically, I'm just going to walk the Earth.
Vincent: What'cha mean, "walk the Earth"?
Vincent: And how long do you intend to walk the Earth?
Jules: Until God puts me where he wants me to be.
Vincent: And what if he don't do that?
Jules: If it takes forever, then I'll walk forever.
We didn't have a ton of resources (just some personal savings accrued from me working while living at home to survive for a year in a quinoa and hammock lifestyle). So we put together a cash prize to kill our marketing and content acquisition birds with one stone.
And we embarked on a hunt for pioneering insights on how to build government that reflects our globalized and technologically connected world and we got to work telling the world.
We tried some unconventional marketing approaches.
And we took the leap.
We also had a bit of an informal survey at the Capitol, asking people who walked by: "how much does our current government reflect the world we live in?" Some of the best dialogues that resulted: "The scary things is probably a lot." A long conversation with John Laird about California Tomorrow and Chesterton's Fence. "Clearly not at all." And the perplexed: "I don't deal in riddles." Here's a great video Public Innovation's Ash Rougani did on the event.
We put out a craigslist ad offering a (very) small stipend and our cramped extra car seat for a "rugged internship for revolution." Many applied, but only one thought we were full of shit. Yet somehow we managed to convince him that this was a worthwhile endeavor, and he dropped everything to move from Cinncinati to California. His name is Michael Jon Leonard, and he's still a Stag Hunter today.
We got busy networking, and set up meetings with cool dudes like Bob Hertzberg to discuss how California might pioneer better government that "reflects the realities of our globalized and technologically connected world."
And we landed the publishing rights to acclaimed author Marcus Ruiz Evan's next book on California.
We did some uber-lean, hyperlocal, super-non-buzzwordy market research in the nearby Santa Monica original muscle beach.
And we poured our heart and soul to pitch the Slak Trak.
Overall, we built a badass team, crushed expectations for our non-digital band of misfits, and capitalized on that momentum to:
We launched our Indiegogo excited to take on the world. Sadly, people were much more willing to play on already set up Slak Trak than they were to set it up themselves. Our most excited slackers were little dudes and dudettes in the late elementary to early high school age, and we look forward to working to integrate slacklines into schools with the Slak Trak.
This year has been an amazing experience, and now it's time to bring that chapter to a close. We've taken another lap around the sun and are hopefully wiser for it. Honestly, it's obvious now that many of our dreams and aspirations weren't perhaps the most mature but they were perhaps quintessentially Californian:
"I realize now that greedy teenage dream of a place where people lived in glass houses surrounded by spectacular vistas and spent their lives being paid handsomely for surfing, making love, and demonstrating for noble causes, yet also managed to be laid-back, forward-looking, and amusingly eccentric, was in its essentially the 'California Dram' of natural beauty married to extraordinary freedom and opportunity that inspired Bruff, and generations of emigrants that followed."
--Thurston Clark, California Fault
We might not have met our financial goals but we have learned skills, brought awesome new creations into the world and been burnished by more failures these past few months than most people have in a lifetime -- assets that not even a zombie apocalypse could take away.
“It has been a long trip," said Milo, climbing onto the couch where the princesses sat; "but we would have been here much sooner if I hadn't made so many mistakes. I'm afraid it's all my fault."
"You must never feel badly about making mistakes," explained Reason quietly, "as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”
― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth
Embolden by the past and excited for our future, here's to the next Hunt.