October 21, 1997

THE AGORA ON YOUR DESKTOP

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Project yourself twenty years into the future, to the year 2017. Even though national elections are just one year away, you don’t find legislators rushing about begging for money or grand-standing for cheap media coverage. Instead, their daily activities are reported and discussed by constituents over the Internet. Our highest elected official, the Facilitator of the United States, declares, “We didn’t know or benefit from the full scope of democracy until everyone got on electronic networks.”

My fantasy is probably a bit too rosy. But the Internet holds a lot of potential for democracy. Just look at what’s bothering people about elections today. We rely too much on soundbites—which, as Noam Chomsky has argued, inherently trivialize challenges to status-quo thinking—and resulting manipulative uses such as negative advertising. We lack information on issues and candidate positions. And worst of all, there’s no dialog: unless you manage to get to the sole local meeting attended by a candidate, you can’t talk back.

The Net may well hold the answer to all these complaints. Already, many Congressional candidates have Web pages. According to the California Voter Foundation, 13 states have passed “digital sunlight” bills requiring information about major donations to be reported online. Soon I can imagine us getting sophisticated search tools to find out who’s giving money and how much each candidate is getting.

The next step being taken by many communities is public debates. When debaters are online, each can join at his or her leisure. Candidates or their aides can respond to a far greater number of questions with much more specific answers than they could in a town meeting.

Some people suggest that representative democracy could be completely replaced by continual public referenda on every topic. Knowing the complexity of the law and the limited time people can expend on legislative issues, I disagree with this “participatory democracy.” The public has often been manipulated throughout history: dictators from Napolean III to Chile’s Pinochet have found plebiscites quite useful to entrench their power. So let us keep our representatives for now and look at how the Internet improves communication.

Do a Web search for your Congressional representatives and see whether they have home pages. The contents of these pages are mostly press releases—at least when you take a superficial look—but if you dig you’ll often find impressively comprehensive and well-argued papers. The same goes for Web pages maintained by political parties and non-profit organizations.

In public debates, Minnesota has taken the lead. Its Minnesota E-Democracy project began in 1994 and offered a strong combination of information and talk opportunities during the 1996 elections. Candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate debated online in view of anyone who cared to log in. Meanwhile, regular citizens could express their views on any topic and exchange political platforms in the MN-Politics discussion forum.

Most participants, as on any mailing list or newsgroup, consisted of lurkers (people who read but don’t write). But the atmosphere still had the positive aspects of a town meeting.

G. Scott Aikens, the 1996 program coordinator in Minnesota, points out that involving representatives and candidates is quite valuable, but recommends against advertising their presence as a way to seed a discussion group. “Who’s going to be attracted by the opportunity to listen to a politician speak?” he jokes. Instead, start by drawing in citizens. When a couple hundred people get online, the media and politicians will follow.

Now Minnesota E-Democracy is gearing up for 1998. A few other large cities are joining them. In a victory for diversity, a page on elections in Los Angeles has been put up in Spanish.

In Seattle, the League of Women Voters and the Center for Governmental Studies have erected a site that provides candidate statements, bulletin boards, opportunities to email candidates, and information on ballot measures. Project Manager Lucy Copass reports that local newspapers as well as candidates have been impressed and excited by the site. A new organization, Democracies Online, coordinates activists who want to promote democracy using digital networks.

Yet we must not exaggerate the penetration of networks. Political scientist Bruce Bimber has examined the claims made for how the Internet could positively influence politics (through more information, more thoughtful discussion, and enhanced relationships) and concludes that “the Net may well bring many changes, but these are more likely to be of an incremental than transformative nature.”

Even Minnesota E-Democracy, the most advanced of the experiments, reached a total of only 700 people during their 1996 work. This doesn’t mean they were irrelevant. Remember that each online participant talks to family, neighbors, coworkers, fellow religious congregationalists, and so on. Yet E-Democracy organizers hope for more participants next time.

Political activist Ed Schwartz, who organizes Philadelphia neighborhoods and maintains Web sites for neighborhood activists around the country, says that 1998 may be the “year of the Internet” politically. Technological changes may help make Internet politics a mass activity. For instance, many companies including Microsoft are trying to integrate the Web with television. Attaching a traditional advertisement that tugs on your emotions to a Web site with a more intellectual approach may prove quite powerful. But should campaigning move to the Internet, it is fair only if we make it universal: we must promote access to the Internet for the poor and offer training to everybody.


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