Robert Wright/Time 23 Jan. 1995
In their book Creating a New Civilization futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler view the old fashioned, physical Congress as suffering from a progressive erosion of relevance that calls for a wholesale rethinking of the U.S. Constitution. "Today's spectacular advances in communication technology open, for the first time, a mind-boggling array of possibilities for direct citizen participation in political decision making". And since our "pseudo-representatives" are so "unresponsive", we the people must begin to "shift from depending on representatives to representing ourselves". The problem with all the plans for a new cyberdemocracy is that judging by the one we already have, it wouldn't be a smashing success. Some of the information technologies that so pervade Washington life have not only failed to cure America's ills but actually seem to have made them worse. Intensely felt public opinion leads to the impulsive passage of dubious laws. The problem is that the emerging cyberdemocracy amounts to a kind of hyperdemocracy. The worst may be yet to come. The trend toward hyperdemocracy has happened without anyone planning it, and there is no clear reason for it to stop now. With or without a new Tofflerian constitution, there is cause to worry that America's inevitable immersion in cyberspace, its descent into a wired world of ultra-narrowcasting and online discourse, may render democracy more hyper and in some way less functional. Americans have seen the future, and it doesn't entirely work. Electronic town-halls featuring push-button voting have always faced one major rhetorical handicap: the long shadow of America's Founding Fathers. The Founders explicitly took lawmaking power out of the people's hands, opting for a representative democracy and not a direct democracy. What concerned them, especially James Madison, was the specter of popular "passions" unleashed. Their ideal was cool deliberation by elected representatives, buffered from the often shifting winds of opinion. The constant canvassing of public sentiment, one of two basic kinds of hyperdemocracy, is a straightforward outgrowth of information technology. The second basic kind -the one more specifically linked to gridlock and to the budget deficit- is a bit more subtle and more pernicious. And like the first one, it ultimately gets back to Madison. In addition to his dread of mass "passions", Madison had a second nightmare about "pure democracy": it "can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction". He was mostly worried about oppressive majority factions. The beauty of a large country, he noted, is the damper it places on factionalism. For when people are dispersed far and wide, even if some of them have "a common motive", the distance among them will make it hard for them to organize -"to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other". The history of communications technology over the past 200 years is the history of those words becoming less true."
WELCOME TO THE TELEDEMOCRACY
ACTIONNEWS + NETWORK the web site of the Global Democracy Movement.
We are primarily dedicated to the creative use of electronic media in all forms that directly empower citizens to have meaningful input into the political system. TAN+N is also dedicated to all genuine pro-democratic movements including those which promote direct democracy. This web site is a strong data base for in-depth teledemocratic resources. TAN+N will also cooperate with allied projects. For example, TAN+N hosts "guest" web sites of like-minded projects who prefer not to have an independent web site. The first guest websites are American Talk Issues Foundation and the Hazel Henderson Homepage. Home Site: Dept. of Polit.Science, Auburn University, Alabama 36849 USA. Project coordinators: Ted Becker, Richard Schmitz. The Electronic Congress The Electronic Congress is a project of the Community Service Foundation, a non-profit foundation, founded by Ted Wachtel, the co-author of the world famous book Tough Love and the sole author of The Electronic Congress. Based on the theory and proposals in the latter book, Mr. Wachtel set up this project which consists of a series of informal national referenda-by-telephone on a wide variety of topics. The 5th Nationwide Telephone Referendum was held from November 11-30, 1995. The subject matter included whether Congress should cut Medicare, cut federal taxes, and try to stop President Clinton from sending troops to Bosnia. Votelink -"The Voice of the Net" Boulder, Colorado Votelink has a similar mission to the Electronic Congres (above) in that it provides national referenda on national issues via electronics. There are major diferences in approach. First, Votelink is a commercial, for-profit company that actively solicits advertisers for its site, e.g. "votelink sponsors". Second, in order to attract voters, Votelink uses top-of-the-line graphics and its system is very user friendly, i.e. easy to navigate. Votelink has been up and running since July 4, 1995..and has run a number of rerefenda. Currently, the issues up for vote include: What to do about Hamas? and, Should California have a one-house state legislature? We like its potential to grow into an important political site that will be a model for Internet referenda-for-real when that comes to pass in the future.
THE PLUGGED-IN VOTER
by Jon Katz/"Rolling Stone", Dec.10, 1992
Reporters did hate Perot's candidacy, a stinging rebuke to them and their impact on politics. If Perot ended up achieving almost none of his political goals in 1992, he did leave one of the country's most powerful institutions -the national press- nearly in ruins. Every thing he promised to do to politics he did to the media, breaking open the decades-old monopoly they have had over presidential politics. By using new phone technology and talk shows to answer voters' questions directly, Perot returned individuals to the center of the campaign and gave millions of citizens the sense they were once again participating. Perot paid dearly for his gall. The press attacked him continuously. Perot was cast as a dangerous and troubled man, a monomaniac and a liar. When they helped force Perot from the race, many reporters felt almost gleefully affirmed. They were important after all, and candidates who didn't deal with them would be sorry. But they were wrong. They'll be seeing his face in their dreams for years to come. He liberated politics from journalists. In the new, emerging information world, mainstream journalism is floundering. The coming changes will threaten to make reporters obsolete. New phone, screen and satellite technologies make Ross Perot's mad vision of an electronic town hall inevitable. Perot was on the mark when he said his notion make reporters crazy by making the White House press conference obsolete. In the U.S. anyone with a pen or a pencil, a notebook, a still camera or a videocam is a reporter. The People's News will plug us back into the political system, returning individual, idiosyncratic, untutored voices to broadcasting, where the whole culture of Tv journalism -pollsters, blow-dried reporters and anchors, advocates, spokespeople and lobbyists -is structured to keep them off. The People's News will show us in the mirror, not just them. Perot's campaign brought with it visions of the future nobody wants to see.
THE NATIONAL ELECTRONIC TOWN HALL
by J.Seely Brown, P.Duguild, S.Haviland
"The Aspen Institute Quarterly"
In the not-too-distant future, every household may be offered 500 infotainment channels. Democratic participation may also be included. Two-way capacity allows participation. People can vote yes or no from a button on the remote control. Issues of policy, governance and polity are opened to popular vote. This sort of rule by continuous plebiscite is disturbing because it replaces almost every other sort of democratic participation with the yes or no vote, simultaneously distributing power and diluting responsibility. We may not all be equally qualified to take part in that vote. Technology may be better used not for direct access to every political vote, but for access to and through intermediaries.
THE MASS MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY
by James W.Carey/"Journal of International Affairs", 1993
There is widespread demand for less pro forma political representation and for more real participaton. During the second half of the 2Oth century the average U.S. citizen was no longer interested in politics. Indeed, the title of E.J.Dionne, Jr.'s book, Why Americans hate politics, expresses a more active alienation from public life than is revealed by the low voter turnouts that have marked the entire modern period.
INTERACTIVE VOTING IS CLOSER THAN WE KNOW
by Jonathan Alter/ "Newsweek", Feb.27, 1995
With 50% of American homes expected to have a modem within the next 5 years, the decline of the polling place may be at hand. And when we can vote from home, it's hard to believe that choosing candidates won't be expanded to choosing politics, just as Ross Perot promised. Interactive technology can obviously expand participation. Direct democracy is wonderful if it means strenghtening civic society so that we discuss our common problems. It's crossing that line from discussion to direct decision that should make us all nervous. Maybe it's time to start thinking about how to build a few roadblocks to slow that part of the superhighway. The problem is that direct democracy leaves no room for amendment and compromise. Technology hurts democracy by eroding reflection and time.
NOT SO SCARY
by James Lardner/"New Yorker", March 1994
Ross Perot called for an electronic town hall in which the President would spell out a problem and its possible solutions, and the people would then vote for the solution they favored. It is a vision that has struck some commentators as an invitation to high-tech demagoguery. Meanwhile, unnoticed by Perot or his critics, a prototytpe of the electronic town hall has already arrived, and it is not so scary.
OPEN ARMS FOR ONLINE DEMOCRACY
S.V.Roberts/"U.S.News & World Report", Jan.16, 1995
"Technology will soon make it possible to do away with representative government altogether. Just push a button on your television set and register your opinion on the budget, or Bosnia. But direct democracy is inherently unstable. Government by plebiscite is too vulnerable to passing passions and devious demagogues.
by L.R.Jacobs, Univ. of Minnesota, & R.Y.Shapiro, Columbia Univ.
"Political Science", March 1994
The formalistic conception of democracy discourages research on the democratic substance of government activity between elections. As long as elected officials meet formal requirements, then their conduct is assumed to be democratic and is not evaluated in terms of its actual representativeness (Schumpeter 1950). In a sense, democracy begins and ends with the act of voting. The role of citizens is restricted to deciding the deciders.
A SENSE THAT POLITICS NO LONGER WORKS
by David Zarefsky, president
The Speech Communication Association, Nov.20, 1993
The public forum is fundamentally about politics, and a factor weakening it in our time is a growing sense that politics no longer works. Since the 1950's, The National Election Study has been asking voting-age adults whether they agree or disagree with the statement, "I don't think public officials care much what people like me think". In 40 years the percentage agreeing has risen from 36 to 59. In 1964, only 31% of Americans thought that government was run by "a few big interests"; in 1991 the figure was 71%. Individuals are losing a sense that government matters to them or takes them seriously. How this sense of low efficacy weakens the public sphere was summarized by the journalist, E.J.Dionne: "We have lost our sense of common citizenship. Americans have become increasingly skeptical about whether public engagement could ever produce much of value". If public life offers so little chance of making a difference, then why should one become involved? Presidential candidate Ross Perot spoke about the idea of an electronic town meeting. While he was understandably short on specifics, I suspect that something like it will come to pass.
WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTION
by A.Burkitt-Gray/"Electronic Government", Oct.1996
Back in ancient Athens they had ways to ensure people took part in the democratic process. Citizens were forcibly rounded up and made to attend all-day meetings on the slopes of the Acropolis. For those few fortunate enough who had the right status, it was a civic duty to help govern the city. These days the size of cities and nations means that all but a few have a distant relationship with those who govern. In some countries where democracy is new or has recently been restored people still relish the prospect of voting -but in the US and the UK a President and a Prime Minister will be elected by a minority of adults. However, there's a revolution under way. It's the turn of officials and politicians -and af all of us as citizens- to confront the effects of the remarkable advances in computers and telecommunications. These are exciting times and we are all part of them.