Snider, James H., The Futurist
Tomorrow's Electronic Electorate
"Electronic town meetings" on television are only the beginning of an Information Age democracy
Over the last 200 years, new information technologies have significantly transformed the possibilities and practice of democracy. For example, the early-nineteenth-century invention of the penny press for printing newspapers made the acquisition of political information by the masses both convenient and affordable. This, in turn, greatly facilitated the extension of suffrage during that period. Later, the advent of television weakened the traditional political-party system and led to the growing influence of the media in elections.
Over the next 20 years, many experts believe that information technology may change more than it has over the last 200 years. If they are right, we can expect major changes in the democratic system of government.
Problems with Democracy
Today, it is hard to imagine that such a large democracy as the United States, with its 250 million citizens, could survive if information technologies such as books, magazines, newspapers, radio, and television suddenly vanished. Indeed, until the last few hundred years the most-respected political thinkers uniformly agreed that only small-scale democracy was possible, in part because of communication limitations. Aristotle argued in the fourth century B.C. that democracy could not work in a country larger than a small city-state such as Athens. One reason was that in a democracy all citizens should be able to assemble at one place to hear a speaker. Thus, the range of the human voice limited a democracy's size. As late as the mid-eighteenth century, political thinkers of the stature of Montesquieu and Rousseau continued to echo this conventional wisdom and argue against the possibility of large-scale democracy.
After the birth of the United States--a huge democracy by historical standards--such arguments were discredited. But as evidence mounts that America's democratic system is moving farther away from the democratic ideal, it is easy to wonder if the pre-modern thinkers weren't on to something. According to a widely quoted study by the Kettering Foundation entitled Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America, "Americans are both frustrated and downright angry about the state of the current political system. [They] do not believe they are living in a democracy now. They don't believe that 'We the people' actually rule. What is more, people do not believe this system is able to solve the pressing problems they face."
Perhaps the early political thinkers simply got the maximum democratic size wrong. Instead of it being 5,000, or 20,000, or even 100,000, maybe it is 250 million. Convinced that large-scale democracy was impossible, the early political thinkers surely would have had little trouble identifying at least part of America's main governmental problem--its growing size and complexity.
Over the last 200 years, America's population has grown from 3 million to 250 million. At the same time, the size and complexity of government has grown exponentially. In 1831, there were only 11,491 federal employees; today there are millions. As government grows larger and more complex, it is harder to keep it accountable. And as the proportion of citizens to representatives increases (thus decreasing the odds of any individual citizen making a difference), citizens have even less incentive to try and keep it accountable.
The development of mass media such as newspapers and television has helped to alleviate these problems. The maximum range of a politician's message is no longer the hundreds or thousands within the physical range of the voice, but the tens of millions who can watch television. Similarly, the mass media usually offer better and more convenient political news than could word of mouth.
Unfortunately, the technology and institutions of democracy are no longer keeping up with its growth. America continues to have democratic ideals, but not an informed and engaged electorate able to act upon those ideals. The result is a government that neither knows nor implements the public's will. The savings-and-loan scandal is a notorious example: If the government had regulated banks in the public interest, taxpayers would have saved hundreds of billions of dollars.
There are, of course, non-technology-based approaches to solving our democratic woes; for example, we might instill a better sense of civic duty in schools, or overhaul campaign-finance laws in order to minimize the influence of special-interest groups. A more fundamental approach might be to use new information technology to transcend the inherent historic limitations of democracy. In moving from today's Industrial Age democracy to tomorrow's Information Age democracy, both direct and mediated democracy can and should be enhanced.
Most of the literature on the democratic significance of new information technology has focused on its ability to enhance direct participation by citizens in the political process. For the many people who have lost confidence in the ability of both elected representatives and the media to act in their interest, direct democracy, such as the ballot referendum or the town meeting, offers an appealing alternative.
Clearly, the new technology facilitates new forms of voting and thus direct participation. For example, instead of physically going to the polls, people could vote from their homes. With more-convenient and less-expensive voting, people could be expected to vote more frequently and on more issues. Ballot referendums and polls could proliferate.
Another benefit of the new technology is improved access to the deliberations of public bodies. Already, cable television's C-SPAN channel gives us coverage of the U.S. House and Senate chambers and many congressional hearings. Similarly, the California Channel provides coverage of the California House and Senate chambers and legislative hearings. At a local level, many public-access cable television channels cover city council and school board meetings. In the future, coverage of such meetings at local, state, and national levels is likely to expand dramatically, thus making government deliberations much more accessible to the average person.
New technology also facilitates previously impractical forms of democratic deliberation. With the electronic town meeting via television, computer, or some synthesis of both, citizens are offered direct contact with public officials, unmediated by journalists. The idea is to force politicians and the media to talk to the public about important issues that might otherwise escape the political agenda. Combined with televoting, the electronic town meeting offers a potentially significant improvement on the ballot referendum or traditional telephone poll, both of which are poor at fostering deliberation and thus lead to uninformed voting.
Government records could also be made more accessible. The cumbersome procedures necessary to gain access to information under the federal Freedom of Information Act or the local public records laws could be replaced by instantaneous computerized access. Information that is an expensive nightmare to get from government today would thus become available, inexpensively and conveniently, with a few keystrokes. Congress' recent passage of the Government Printing Office (GPO) Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act, which provides Internet access to GPO documents, is a major step in this direction.
As the many critics of direct democracy have argued, the average person does not have the time, ability, or inclination to become an expert on issues and candidates. Direct democracy, which inevitably leads to information overload can, at best, only be a minor palliative to the political information problem. What people want are trustworthy information sources that will do the hard work of gathering and digesting political information for them. This is already a function of the media, but only in a primitive form. The greatest potential of new information technology to improve democracy lies in its ability to enhance mediated democracy.
The importance of today's passive mass media is likely to diminish greatly over the coming decades. Passive media may be replaced by a new type of interactive multimedia, characterized by highly specialized media outlets often described as "information agents." For example, a typical city today has one dominant newspaper. This newspaper achieves its dominance largely because of huge economies of scale associated with its distribution system. In the future, the reporters who work for such newspapers are likely to become independent information entrepreneurs, selling their information wares directly to the public over the telecommunications network.
Part person and part computer program, these information agents will gather and digest information, then disseminate it to their clients just as high-priced consultants do today. Accordingly, their customized advice will be short and clear and allow for as much background and explanatory information as desired.
A vast literature exists criticizing our current mass media. While there is no guarantee that the media of the future will cure all these ills (and avoid creating new ones), the potential for more competitive, diverse, and customized media in the future is good cause for hope.
The new media could lead to some important qualitative changes in politics. In the past, the growing influence of mass media in the political process has led candidates to rely increasingly on media-based self-pro-motion (as opposed to the political parties) to get themselves elected. The new media, while continuing to weaken the political parties, could nevertheless greatly diminish the utility of candidate self-promotion.
The reasoning is that voters in the future will increasingly get their political information from the impartial information agents, not from the candidates directly. If that turns out to be the case, then not only will traditional candidate self-promotion become obsolete, but so will the power of lobbyists and special interests who derive their power from the ability to fund candidates' media campaigns. A candidate could spend huge sums taking out television ads, but it would do no good if the voter has come to rely on agents for political information.
In many respects, this argument merely extends to the political realm what many have argued is likely to be an effect of interactive multi-media in the commercial realm--the making of advertising, especially un-requested advertising, much less effective, if not completely useless.
Citizens in Action
An important new form of mediated democracy facilitated by new information technology has average citizens, not specialized information agents, doing the mediation.
This approach entails bringing together a random sample of voters to deliberate on issues and candidates. They, in effect, do the hard work of democracy that the rest of us don't have the time or motivation to do. Curiously, this is a form of mediated democracy widely used in ancient Athens more than 2,000 years ago and has continued, in a vastly restricted fashion, in the American jury system. New information technology facilitates its expansion in historically new ways.
Many variations on this idea have been proposed. In one of the three 1992 presidential debates, the Gallup Poll randomly selected 200 Americans to serve as the audience. In the 1992 U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, a small, random group of citizens were convened as a citizen jury to interview and evaluate the candidates. A more rigorous form of citizen-mediated democracy has been proposed by political scientist Jim Fishkin in his book Democracy and Deliberation. In what Fishkin calls a "deliberative opinion poll," a scientifically representative microcosm of American citizens deliberates on issues and candidates with the purpose of finding out what the public would think if it had the motivation and resources for informed decision making.
If we accept the assumption of modern polling techniques that a group as small as 500 people can be an accurate barometer of the public sentiment, then such an approach preserves the essence of the democratic ideal while substantially solving the problem of the individual voter's low motivation and inadequate resources. Members of the sample would know that their voice has disproportionate weight (maybe by as much as 500,000 Americans) and that they are getting otherwise inconceivable access to special resources, such as one-on-one contact with candidates and leading experts.
Public Policy Recommendations
New public policies are necessary to facilitate the new forms of democracy made possible by emerging information technology. To make sure that we don't disintegrate into a nation of information haves and have-nots, it will be necessary to ensure universal access to the coming information highway.
More important are the less obvious political institutions made possible by new information technology. For example, the new technology will make possible new ways to publicly finance elections. Instead of money going to candidates, money could be given directly to the voters. Instead of tens of millions of dollars in communication vouchers being given to presidential candidates to spend on 30-second television ads, money could be given directly to citizens to spend on information about presidential candidates. Such voter-based vouchers are far more democratic than candidate-based vouchers but have never been practical before.
Similarly, new laws and policies need to be developed to maximize the social utility of information agents. A special class of information agent--the electoral agent--could be given special treatment much like nonprofit organizations, which receive privileges such as tax exemptions and reduced postal rates. As with nonprofits, electoral agents could provide a public good that would otherwise be underproduced. If mass-media advertising becomes obsolete and thus no longer able to subsidize "free TV" or cheap newspapers (the traditional media for election information), then the need for electoral agents could become even more acute than it is today.
The obligations for electoral agents could include: (1) No funding from candidates or candidate proxies (that is, no financial conflicts of interest), (2) a complete public record of all contact with candidates or their proxies (for example, a video if a personal contact and an electronic letter if a text-based contact), (3) agent computer systems that facilitate candidate rebuttals of any agent assertion (the candidate could ask for a "rebuttal button" to appear on the screen when the challenged assertion appears), and finally (4) information structured to help voters make decisions between candidates (for example, a news format would not qualify).
In return for meeting these obligations, electoral agents would be entitled to receive the voter information vouchers as well as significantly reduced liability for libel.
The First Amendment needs to be reinterpreted. Too often today it only protects the rights of information producers, not consumers. If the media become even more important in the political process, it is vital that the public have the right to know as much about the media as they do about politicians, lobbyists, and government agencies. The White House Correspondents Association already requires members to disclose their major financial interests, including investments, speaking fees, and perks. Similarly, new technology facilitates enhanced rights of rebuttal and rights to diverse information sources.
The traditional right-to-know laws that pertain to government information also need to be rewritten. In many states, the public-records laws and the open-meeting laws were conceived when the photocopier and audiotape recorder were the most-advanced forms of information technology. These laws need to be brought into the present and made to anticipate the future so that public access to government and candidate information can be improved. Even if the public doesn't avail itself of this information, it is absolutely necessary for the effective functioning of the emerging media.
Perhaps the party system could be abolished as well. Already the growth of television over the last few decades has seriously diminished the power of the parties. This trend toward weakened parties is likely to continue as a result of the emerging information infrastructure and the new agent-based media it engenders. A logical implication is to institutionalize the growing powers of the media over the nominating system. For example, an electoral agents' association could set dates and criteria for nominations--something the media currently do in a much less democratic way with so-called "hidden" nominations. The hidden nomination is the process, most pronounced in presidential primaries, whereby the media anoint a handful of candidates as serious contenders.
More generally, the practical realities limiting nominating systems can be rethought in light of new information technology. The current nominating systems in the United States are based on certain assumptions about communications and transportation requirements. As the information infrastructure changes, so do the possibilities for creating nominating systems that will attract and select the best candidates. Theoretically elegant but heretofore impractical voting systems could come into widespread use. Instead of starting with an initial pool of five to 10 candidates preselected by political parties or mass-media pundits, it might be practical with computer voting to start with hundreds or thousands of candidates and have the public do the selecting. With the advent of relatively inexpensive and convenient home voting, we could also have three or four nominating rounds instead of the two customary today. And the new media rather than the parties could be given control of the basic nominating system protocols.
Modern civilization requires a large and complex government because the private sector alone simply cannot provide many vital services such as defense and environmental protection. It is unfortunate that its immensity has made the government so unaccountable to its citizens and their general welfare. But new information technology, combined with forward-thinking public policies, can help bring the democratic ideal much closer to reality.
James H. Snider is currently a university fellow of political science at Northwestern University. He recently chaired a task force on information, technology, and democracy for the Vermont Commission on Democracy. He is co-author of Future Shop: How New Technologies Will Change the Way We Shop and What We Buy, which is available from the Futurist Bookstore for $22.95 ($20.65 for Society members), cat. no. B-1615. To order, use the coupon on page 40.
His last article for THE FUTURIST was "Consumers in the Information Society" (January-February 1993). His address is Northwestern University, Department of Political Science, Scott Hall, 601 University Place, Evanston, Illinois 60206. Telephone 708/491-7450.…
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Publication information: Article title: Democracy On-Line. Contributors: Snider, James H. - Author. Magazine title: The Futurist. Volume: 28. Issue: 5 Publication date: September-October 1994. Page number: 15+. © 1999 World Future Society. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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