For centuries we've elected people to give us voice in far-off forums and then judged how well they've represented us. America's form of government began as a representative democracy because of the scale and the distance between an event and the time people could find out about it. But soon the pony express came into existance, followed by the telegraph, and of course the telecommunication explosion of the telepone and the subsequent technology of TV, fax machines, computers and e-mail.
Perhaps the crisis in political leadership we're witnessing today is the crisis of an earlier invented arrangement that has become irrelevant. With the advent of modern telecommunications, we are now in a position to know all we have to know as soon as everyone else knows it, including those who represent us. We no longer need people on the scene who have the knowledge and information to make judgments for us. We have the same information (and are also on the scene). The only thing the elected representative has that the citizen at home doesn't have is knowledge of the culture of the governing institutions.
The situation I think we are moving toward, after our long period of representative democracy, is the ultimate in direct democracy: a free-market-of-ideas democracy where people directly resolve issues by representing themselves and eliminating representatives. It has been working in science for many years. Someone makes a proposition, and then the interested individuals in the scientific community give their input. In other words, the marketplace decides. A free market democracy would look the same. Our elected government would facilitate a free market of ideas and opinions. And then we citizens would have the opportunity to resolve the issues and vote on those matters that directly impact on our lives. (The above is paraphrased from John Naisbitt's Global Paradox.1) Can Politics Become Consumer-Driven?
Paul Valery, the French poet and critic said: "Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them." Metaphorically speaking, this is how a "mainframe" central government practices.
For a moment, let's imagine the "grand vision" of the telecommunication industry, and picture millions of autonomous individuals all over the world initiating projects and ventures with intense global coordination on a network of networks like the Internet. The bad news is that power would flow in all directions -- unpredictable, a little chaotic, certainly messy -- and not at all well-ordered like hierarchical, top-down arrangements. The good news is the extensive linking of citizen to citizen could encourage extraordinary cooperation among people, companies, and countries.
In this environment, people would represent themselves, and ultimately everyone would become a politician. In the process, the power base of politics would spread dramatically. A government's viability would be determined by the extent to which its leadership allows or assists in the move from mainframe governance to collections of individual PCs. Ultimately, the governments and leadership would be forced to change to allow and facilitate an extraordinary amount of direct "consumer-driven" democracy.
Will Citizens Soon Lobby from Cyberspace?
"If the Internet is to be a tool for democracy, access will be an issue," says Roger Hurwitz, research scientist in MIT's artificial intelligence lab and co-author of a report appearing in World Wide Web Journal. "And how do we insure access? This is not an idle question."
For the solution to this concern, we'll have to check back early next century. But in the meantime, Hurwitz and a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have tackled the question. And to draw their conclusions, the study team used, what else, an e-mail and web survey of those who use the White House Electronic Publications Service. The little known but well regarded online service distributes transcripts of speeches and remarks by the president, briefings by his staff, news releases, executive orders and other presidential documents. The materials are estimated to reach nearly 150,000 people on a near daily basis.
The MIT survey found evidence that the White House service and the Internet are changing the way (some) people feel about and participate in politics. A large number of respondents said they have become more connected with people like themselves, find government to be more personal and accessible, and have become more aware of and involved in issues that affect them. Overall, the survey showed the Internet can change the flow of political information, bypassing traditional channels like the media, for example, and creating new forms of political participation.
The good news is that the Internet can improve the democratic process by making it easier for citizens to be informed about politics, and to communicate with government agencies and elected representatives.
The bad news is that the citizens using cyberspace for politics are predominantly those who are already privileged and politically active. So Hurwitz and team came to a disturbing conclusion: The Internet can play an important role in politics, but until the population using the Internet becomes more universal,2 any democratizing effect will be limited to an elite subset of the population ... potentially polarizing the process. (Great numbers of citizens will not soon lobby from cyberspace!)
In Conclusion ...
Will the age of electronic information and communications spell the end of politics as we know it? If the way we participate in politics changes, will it necessitate changes in the way we organize our government and define the role of leadership?
I'm no fan of electronic voting and simple majority rule. In my opinion, representative government, despite all its historical and current abuses, succeeds fairly well at preventing change from happening at too rapid a pace.
But then the pendulum is always swinging, and it often goes too far before reversing course. If we isolate ourselves by sitting too long in solitude at our keyboards as we experience a new democratic "self rule," it may prompt a deep, widespread craving for a return to democracy as formulated by our forefathers. (I'll have to check back sometime early next century.)
- Naisbitt J. Global Paradox. Avon Books, New York, 1994.
- While 45 percent of American adults have access to commercial or Internet-based online services, only 14 percent of U.S. households are actively online. (from latest survey of consumers and business executives conducted by an independent firm not related to computer industry) The Home Study, by Odyssey, Inc., San Francisco.
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