Original URL: http://slashdot.org/features/98/12/20/1210224.shtml
The Morning After: Digital Democracy II
Posted by JonKatz on Monday December 21, @11:15AM
from the Never-Again dept.
Digital Democracy isn't the same thing as Direct Democracy. Friday's column on the former provoked a brainy and high-minded outpouring of e-mail worthy of the dinner table arguments of the Founders themelves. Lots of people loved the idea, many fear it, and confused it with the chaos of what they called Direct Democracy. But it ain't the same thing. The Morning After the nightmare in Washington, Digital Democracy is clearly an idea whose time has came, a healthy and inevitable part of the revolutionary decentalization of at least some power already underway on the Net and Web, and for that matter, sites like this. And Digital Democracy has already arrived. Here's some of the response and some more arguments.

The Morning After, most of the country was remarkably united, even as its elected representatives were hopelessly split. More than three-fourths of the American people told three different poll-takers that they felt the political and journalistic culture in Washington was "out of control," had obsessively pursued impeachment at the expense of the country's best interests, and had continuously failed to represent their wishes. After months of countless and eternal debates, charges, indictments and attacks, that might have been the bitterest indictment of all. Journalists in particular were running for cover. Instead of challenging the runaway process in Washington, they supported and advanced it at every turn.

Washington journalists and Washington politicians had taken one more giant step in their co-dependent and increasingly unnerving death dance. The rest of us could only watch, slack-jawed and resentful. What better time to think about the new and promising ways in which technology might bring about a saner, more rational and representative way of making critical decisions? It's time for an Open Source political movement, where technology helps us regain control of our arrogantly disconnected political system. ***

There was a big, brainy and high-minded outpouring of e-mail following the Digital Democracy column I posted Friday on the eve of President Clinton's impeachment. It ranged from quotes from the Constitution and the Federalist Papers to bewildered European e-mail about just what Americans put in the Capitol's drinking water. There was lots of interest in the idea, much uncertainty about how it might work.

Some people assumed - incorrectly - that Digital Democracy and Direct Democracy were the same thing.

"What you're talking about isn't "digital democracy", wrote Jonathan L, "it's a 'direct' democracy enabled by digital technology."

Jonathan suggested forming a new political party, and calling it "The Direct Democracy by Proxy Party." But in a culture of snazzy acronyms, we'd probably need a snappier one.

Actually, I wasn't talking about "direct" democracy. Direct democracy - the idea that citizens can vote instantly on all civic issues electronically, would be chaotic and unworkable. It would make the country ungovernable overnight. It isn't a new idea, or one that withstands a lot of thought.

Digital Democracy is different. It doesn't require the dismantling of representative government (I don't know about you, but I don't want to spend months poring over the federal budget), but would use interactivity and digital technology to connect many more people to government, and to give them a greater voice in at least some of the decision-making now exclusively controlled by political parties, and their co-dependents, journalists and ideologues.

Putting aside the issue of whether Clinton deserved to be impeached or not, much of the country was angry and unsettled by the notion that their strong and oft-expressed wishes have been brushed aside all year. This doesn't have to be.

The interactivity of the Internet doesn't completely alter power, it transforms it. Anyone with a computer now has access to information that only journalists, politicians and educators used to have - remember when we read the Starr Report before they did, and before they got to decide which parts we ought to read and see? Digital democracy was already taking hold.

But that doesn't mean there are no more journalists, politicians or educators. It means they don't have as much power over us as they used to. And it's driving them nuts.

On the smallest scale, people like me have more power than some because we have forums in which to speak - books, columns, magazines. But I have less power than I used to have when I wrote for magazines like GQ and Rolling Stone, and you have more. You can flame, criticize, disagree with me, via e-mail and public posting. If you think I'm a jerk, you can tell me - and everyone else who's here. You can also post your own opinions, as often as you want and at whatever reasonable length you want. Thus the presentation of ideas from people like me is transformed.

This changes the whole dynamic of journalism and punditry. My ideas aren't tablets brought down from the Mount - this is the way op-ed pages work -- but notions that start conversations, or memes that live or die depending on their worth. Try posting your own long response to the op-ed columnist of your local newspaper on his or her editorial page, if you want to be reminded of the difference, or need convincing that Digital Democracy is already making itself seen and heard.

Interactivity inevitably democratizes and de-centralizes institutions like media and, potentially, Congress. MP3's are radically altering the relationship between vendors and consumers of music, giving much more access to different kinds of music to people and less to record companies. OSS promises to alter the relationship between people and their computers, and especially, between people and the computers who make software for their computers. Digital technology has loosened the grip organized religion has had for centuries on the environments of the young, or that censors and other forms of moral guardians have over discussions of sexuality, values and politics.

Some form of representation is essential in any government, especially one as large as this one. The whole country can't be making decisions on everything all the time. Appointments, policy issues, matters affecting criminal justice and budgets are all examples of things that "direct" democracy would find almost impossible to deal with.

"Bravo," e-mailed Justin," but can we realistically expect everybody to take part in the electoral process?"

No. But people are flocking to the Internet by the tens of millions because it provides them with an easy and efficient means to communicate, join communities, play, research or do business. People are much more apt to participate in democratic processes if they can do so from their own homes and businesses. And if they feel a part of the process. One reason so many people find the experience of going online so powerful is because they literally feel enfranchised by it and proprietary about it - they decide where to go, what to see, who to talk to. And for certain groups like the elderly, the disabled, people living in rural or isolated areas - voting online would be radically simpler and more convenient.

How would Digital Democracy have worked in the impeachment process, or in other matters affect the country as a whole? Like this:

The Independent Counsel (or whatever prosecutorial agency ends up investigating matters like these) would submit a recommendation to the House Judiciary Committee, just as it does now. The Committee would consider it, then release its findings onto the Internet - and in print form, too, for anybody who doesn't care to use computers in this way for any reason. They did this with the Starr report, which 55 million Americans got to read it, but they had no idea what they were really doing. They thought it would damage the President, but it had the unintended affect of convincing countless people that the crimes against him weren't as serious as they'd thought. That was another example of Digital Democracy already at work, however accidentally or unconsciously. So was the election of Minnesota Governor-Elect Jesse Ventura, whose campaign staff gives the Net much of the credit for his surprise victory.

In an impeachment-like proceeding, people online could study other relevant documents, then go to local, state or national forums to ask questions, gather more information, seek other points of view, and debate the charges. They could download debates, files and discussions to read later or share with friends, family members or colleagues. They could talk directly with lawyers, politicians, academics. They would be less dependent on journalists and politicians, both groups rapidly losing credibility and moral authority as they willfully pursue self-righteous and insanely disconnected agendas.

Pre-registered, digital citizens could engage in a preliminary, non-binding vote. They might have another two weeks to repeat the deliberative, information-gathering process, then vote again. Then, a month later, they'd vote for a final time. This process would help guard against an impulsive, mob-like response. On the Internet, everybody can be heard, we can all easily find our way to the information we need.

Prosecutors, politicians, even the President, could speak through conventional media and digitally, through e-mail, downloads, reprinted speeches and arguments, live websites. The final public vote would be binding on Congress, and the majority would rule, as it does in the House of Representatives. If the public voted against the President, then Impeachment could move to the Senate. If it didn't, the process would stop. Instead of people feeling that their decision-making had been usurped, they could instead feel as were actually participating in a democratic process that included them.

Digital democracy makes possible, for the first time, the rapid dissemination and debate of civic information, and also gives the public a chance to be heard quickly and continuously. Nothing about this notions conflicts with the founders idea about democracy. Polls are a perfectly valid expression of public will. They are not infallible, but are increasingly scientific, reliable and tested. Politicians and journalists hate the idea of such broad-based public decision making in part because it greatly diminishes their own power and role. This way, they get to decide what happens to the President, almost by themselves and in utter disregard of the public's wishes. That's not democracy, but an arrogant usurpation of democracy. Lots of Americans got a bellyful of journalistic and political decision-making this year. Ever since Watergate, journalists in Washington have increasingly grown to love the notion that they have somehow been put in charge of the moral, personal and ethical policing of public figures. Reporters have become our new Morals Squad, and at times - this time, for example - this ugly expansion and abuse of power serves particular political interests. It's past time that reporters were disabused of that notion. These decisions should be made by the public, not Washington talk show panelists and politicians.

Digital Democracy couldn't be used to run the government. Nor would it replace government leaders. Routine legislation and government operations would be conducted as usual, but when major national policy initiatives are up for decision - sending troops to Bosnia, a strategy for dealing with Iraq, the resolution of intractable social issues like abortion and gun control, impeachment. Under Digital Democracy, the country literally uses technology to decide as a whole.

Backed by clear, irrefutable demonstrations of the will of the majority, these policies and decisions would gain legitimacy. The kind of eternal, fragmenting debates that rage round the clock in Washington on talk shows would be pointless. At some fixed point in the process, the public would vote, the issue resolved.

After Saturday, Digital Democracy never looked better. People on the Net have had months to consider the charges against the President. They've read information on news sites, debated and talked in countless digital communities, mailing lists and websites, read through the Starr repeated and the Lewinsky testimony.

Saturday morning, digital citizens who wanted to be could have been as well equipped as most members of Congress to vote on impeachment, one way or the other.

Perhaps the most pressing question about Digital Democracy is whether or not everybody could participate. At the moment, the answer is no. Even though between seventy and eighty million Americans now have access to the Net and the Web, according to Yahoo!'s Internet Life Magazine, many millions of Americans still don't.

"What you're saying is dangerous," wrote one e-mailer. "Under Digital Democracy, there would have been no civil rights movement, because most Americans didn't favor it and few blacks would have had computers."

Not so. The civil rights movement generated broad national political support in the years after World War II. Despite fierce opposition in some Southern States, the movement grew steadily in the 50's and 60's, resulting in Congressional passage of a series of popularity, resulting in landmark legislative initiatives like the Civil Rights Bill.

And blacks were finally enfranchised because they were guaranteed access to voting booths and the right to use them when they got there --- not because they were all given voting booths. The issue was equal rights, not technology. Digital empowerment is just as critical a contemporary issue. In recent years, blacks and other minorities have been moving online at about the same speed as whites, according to surveyors like American Demographics, although underclass and poor members of minorities aren't nearly as well represented online as middle-class families of all races. Women now outnumber men on the Web, according to surveys, and online use is growing rapidly among all categories of Americans, even the elderly.

We are within a few years of guaranteeing that all voting-age Americans be guaranteed access to computers at schools, libraries or post offices, in the same way all Americans now get to polling stations (there are far more Net-connected computers in America than polling booths, and most are in use all the time). Soon, computers will be marketed for less money than many TV sets, becoming as cheap and ubiquitous as cars, telephones and TV set's - all thought to be exotic and out of reach of many people when they were first created.

This isn't a Utopian vision, but a modern reality, and an oft-repeated, inevitable part of the history of mass technologies. Digital democracy would advance the spread of personal computing, as the equitable distribution computers would become an urgent national political issue. As it is, politicians blabber on endlessly about crossing that bridge to the 21st century, but nobody's coughing up any money to build it.

"To be blunt," wrote Robert, "if the Founding Fathers had intended for these United States to be a digital democracy, there would be no Senate."

But the Founding Fathers lived in a world where only a handful of citizens could physically get to state or national capitols to participate in their governments, and didn't receive political news for weeks or months. Modern Americans can react quickly to political decisions, and, more importantly, have access to enormous amounts of information. The founders failed to imagine lots of things - the end of slavery and the emancipation of women among them, but that doesn't make them bad or dangerous ideas. The founders didn't envision the Internet either. But we don't have to be bounded only by the limits of their experience or imagination.

The Internet is already intensely political. Online, freedom isn't a dusty and remote notion, but something discussed all the time. Some people use Linux for fun, but others flock to OSS and free software movements out of a strong, articulated desire to preserve freedom and to create collaborative ways of preserving freedom and control.

On urgent national issues like impeachment, there's no reason for most Americans to feel that their wishes and values have been ignored. The Internet now gives them the means and the method to communicate, educate, deliberate - and then make themselves heard, more quickly and accurately than ever. The evolution of digital democracy is no longer a fantasy advanced by cyber-gurus. It's the inevitable evolution of a truly revolutionary political movement. Institutions like Congress and Washington journalism will, one way or another, have to face the reality that the public will does matter, and they will have to bend their knees to it, rather than brush it aside.

You can e-mail me at jonkatz@bellatlantic.net