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<Electronic Democracy>
By Daniel Will-Harris

10-26-98 - Six years ago, long before the Internet was used by anyone other than the government and universities, I wrote a piece in Desktop Communications magazine about the possible electronic future of democracy. The current contentious situation in Washington, where private matters have become public fodder, reminded me of what I wrote—and it’s perhaps even more current today than it was then—so I’m presenting it here, right in time for this year’s elections. Before anyone accuses me of writing off-topic, let me remind you that this column is about communication, and that’s what democracy and government are about, too. It’s fascinating to realize how something as unexpected as the Internet has already made such an impact on our lives, and how it could make even more of an impact on our world.

Amid all the flag waving, baby kissing, mud slinging and back-stabbing of the current elections, something is being overlooked. The future. Of course there’s a lot of talk about it; plans, polls, programs, and propaganda, but we’re at the end of the 20th century and except for campaigning on TV (and announcing the “winners” long before the voting booths on the West coast are even closed!), we’re still working with a system designed in the late 18th century.

It’s not that the basic system is flawed, or the structure, but even our ingenious forefathers couldn’t have foreseen the changes in communication that have taken place, and the changes these changes could and should have on the way our governments work.

The computer is always being touted as one of the dominant forces of change, but except for a lot of mail-merging and computer-generated IRS letters, we haven’t seen computers make much of an impact on our government, and we should.

>Electronic Town Hall

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “electronic town hall,” about televised call-in shows where people can talk directly to their representatives. What a lot of nonsense and hype. How many people can actually call in without getting busy signals? This might make for nice sound bites, but it’s not really going to allow 250 million people to have their say.

But there is something that could: Electronic Bulletin Boards (BBS’s). I’ve used BBS’s for years now, and the thing that I always find most interesting is that it’s impossible to be prejudiced against someone on a BBS. It’s impossible because you don’t know their sex, age, race, color, weight, religious, political, or sexual preferences. All you know is what they say. We take for granted how much we know about someone just from their voice on the phone, or the way they dress. Since you don’t have those sensory clues, you only know someone’s ideas. [Today the Internet and forums, such as those found on i/us are much more universal, and easier to use, than BBSs ever were]

Talk about true democracy. You can’t be bigoted, even if you wanted to be. You may not like someone else’s ideas, but if you don’t, it’s the ideas you dislike, not the person.

It wouldn’t cost much, per person, to implement. Small terminals with built-in modems could be produced for well under $100. I know, I know, $100 times 250,000,000 is an awfully big number, but the results could put the American government into the 21st century. Just think of all the jobs this would create—all those out-of-work electronics and aerospace workers who could go from building things that go boom to things that are a boon. [Today WebTV boxes can be bought for under $100 and allow virtually anyone with a TV and a phone line to view the web as well as send and receive e-mail. And if you can’t afford that, or don’t want it, most libraries now offer free internet access.]

>Ecology and Convenience

Imagine if everyone in the country had one of these terminals. Gone would be the heavy, paper-hungry phone books. Gone would be a lot of paper mail, and junk mail. E-mail would be available for everyone with a telephone. Snap-on ink-jet printers could print the mail you wanted to keep. The rest you’d just delete, without anything going to the landfill. Fewer vehicles on the road to deliver all the paper mail that would be greatly reduced. If you think faxes have revolutionized communications, just imagine what it would be like to have paperless fax. For everyone? Not just text, but liberty and graphics for all. [Today—Unfortunately, junk e-mail has proliferated, without there being a noticeable reduction in printed junk mail.]

>Getting your say while paying your taxes

This isn’t science fiction. It’s just slightly more sophisticated than the Minitel system available nationally in France for years. Still, if we don’t see this happen in the next four years, the only thing holding this wonderful plan back will be money. Isn’t the most important thing at election time always money? Taxes. Unemployment. It’s not surprising, it’s survival. [Today—Interestingly, this has all happened at almost no cost to the government. Yes, the government started the Internet, but commercial communications companies, ISPs and individuals have built it into what it is today.]

But even with our so-called representatives in Washington, a growing number of Americans feel they have taxation without representation. Once again we can use electronic communication to eliminate this. At tax time we can all specify exactly what we want our tax dollars to go for, or not to go for. How interesting it would be to find out what people really want. Of course, there are necessary programs that might never otherwise get funding, so Congress and the Senate could take our suggestions and then work (read: argue) them into a real budget (something that seems to have eluded them of late).

Even if we don’t have a nationwide on-line system of government, we could still fill out just one more form at tax time to accomplish the same thing. How about that for true representation?

>James Burke’s Brain

While I’ve been thinking about electronic government for a long time now, famed prognosticator James Burke spoke at a recent Windows + OS/2 show on a similar topic (what a nice change from the same old computer company presidents spouting their propaganda). Mr. Burke didn’t talk about computers as machines or commodities, he talked about them as tools, about what they could do if given a chance. It was a fascinating perspective centered on communication.

Our governmental system uses representatives because communication used to be so slow, difficult, and expensive. The representative would sit down with the people of an area, talk about their concerns, then travel slowly to meet with a group of other representatives. They would then speak in behalf of their constituents. It made sense back then. But one of the things that emerged clearly this year is that a large number of people don’t seem to feel that they’re being represented by their representatives.

Mr. Burke’s point was that if everyone was given an equal access to communications tools, such as telephones attached to computers, it could mean the end of representative democracy as we know it. We’d no longer be a country of two (or three) parties, but of hundreds of millions of voices. Talk about majority rule. And it could be instant.

“Ok, everyone, do you want to spend 49 billion dollars on 18 jet fighters, or on medical care for 100 million people?” Gee, 18 planes, 100 million people. Hmmm. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the majority of people really wanted? Could this possibly be the end of special interest groups and high-paid lobbyists? Could this mean that people were represented more equally? [Today—Of course, you have to wonder what impact has e-mail has had on so-called representatives who’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that a majority of their constituents don’t want impeachment proceedings... whatever you feel about this issue, the most potent say you have is with your vote.]

>Two hundred million heads are better...

Image this: there’s a problem in the world. Let’s say the growing garbage problem. The way to handle it today is to ask a small group of experts to think about the problem and come up with solutions. The way to handle it in a totally connected world would be to ask everyone. Image the interesting answers you’d get from two hundred million people. Yes, you’d still have to have people sort through them, figure out which would work and which wouldn’t. Yes, the experts understand a lot of the underlying problems better than laymen, but the amount of diversity in the answers would surely lead to fresh perspectives and developments that experts never dreamed of.

If you look in the animal world, you’ll see that a species that has more varieties can endure more changes, more challenges. So if people had more ideas and choices from a wider group of people, isn’t it possible that we’d all stand a better chance of finally being able to enjoy all the neat stuff we’ve come up with before we end up destroying ourselves or our planet?

Ah, but you’re scared. Think of all those really stupid people out there, finally having their say at your expense. But there are also an awful lot of really smart people out there who are ignored. Besides, if we were all really connected via some kind of computer system that was fun and easy to use, imagine how it could also teach people. Mr. Burke said it could provide, “Empowerment and freedom of expression if the electorate is open to it.”

Don’t sit around and wait for the future to come to you. There are two ways to use your telephone as part of the political process. The first is to call your representatives whenever there’s something you feel strongly about. Your calls do count (though letters carry more weight). Since most people don’t call, your one call represents hundreds of people. The second way is to be an informed voter. You can find out the complete voting records and platforms of any representative in the country by visiting SmartVoter , a non-profit, non-partisan service from the League of Women voters.

Since this is the information age, it only makes sense that knowledge is our key commodity. That means it’s in our national interest to make information more accessible and affordable. I think it would be fascinating?



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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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