By Scott London
This long essay surveys the burgeoning literature on electronic democracy — the impulse to enhance democracy using communications technologies such as interactive television and online voting. The paper tries to sort out the many theoretical implications of electronic democracy, such as the somewhat fuzzy notion — made popular by Ross Perot during the 1992 presidential campaign — of "electronic town meetings." (For a separate op-ed piece I wrote on that subject, see Electronic Town Halls Can't Beat the Real Thing.) The report also presents an overview of some of the early attempts to "electrify" the democratic process, using radio, television, and computer networks. This is undoubtedly one of the most widely read reports I've written, having logged over 100,000 page views since it was first posted online in the mid-1990s. The paper was written as part of an early research project I carried out for the Kettering Foundation in 1993.
The perennial debate over the future of American democracy has reached new heights in the wake of Ross Perot's 1992 campaign, the centerpiece of which is his notion of "electronic town halls." The idea is an evocative and appealing one: to recreate the spirited gatherings of New England townspeople on a national scale using interactive technology. When asked about the electronic town hall in a television interview, Perot said:
I would create an electronic town hall where, say, every week or so we would take a single major issue to the people. We would explain it in great detail and then we would get a response from the owners of the country — the people — that could be analyzed by congressional district so that the Congress — no if's, and's and but's — would know what the people want. Then the boys running around with briefcases representing special interests would be de-horned — to use a Texas term.
Many have wondered whether Perot was serious about his electronic town hall, or merely appealing to disenchanted voters. He did not seem so sure himself at first; each time he was questioned about it, he was almost misleadingly vague. After the campaigns, some pundits let out a sigh of relief; "We're spared, at least for now," one columnist wrote, calling the electronic town hall "one of the leading rotten idea breakthroughs of all time." But on January 11, 1993, Perot hit the headlines again after launching a fund-raising drive for United We Stand America, the volunteer organization that supported his presidential candidacy. Among the group's priorities, he announced, was a plan for implementing electronic town halls. He reappeared on CNN's Larry King Live that same evening, and when asked about his electronic meetings, he said, "We want to use television, which we consider to be the most powerful social instrument ever developed, to arouse and inform the American people, to give the American a voice again on individual issues.... People are dead-interested, and we'll just get busy and build it if they want to."
As a democratic metaphor for our times, Perot's message is a curious reminder of a time fifty years ago when another man had a similar idea. His name was George Gallup. On October 20, 1935, the Washington Post devoted a full page at the front of its features section to his revolutionary new method of measuring public opinion. Along with the results of the first national poll and an explanation of how polls are conducted, was a quote from Lord Bryce, the eminent British diplomat and authority on American government: "The obvious weakness of government by opinion is the difficulty in ascertaining it." The poll, Gallup promised, allowed the people to reclaim their public voice: "After one hundred and fifty years we return to the town meeting. This time the whole nation is within the doors."
Gallup's idea was a noble one, but his "town meeting" didn't turn out to be quite as democratic as he envisioned. As political scientist Benjamin Barber says, "There is nothing civic or common or truly 'public'" about public opinion polls. This view is echoed by columnist Christopher Hitchens, who charges that "opinion polling was born out of the struggle not to discover the public mind but to master it." Pollsters, he says, have the power to "in effect, wield the gavel at the town meeting," to frame a question in such a way as to limit, warp, or actually guarantee the answer."
As a tool for governance, Perot's electronic town hall is equally suspect, for while the technological hardware that makes it possible may be new, the philosophical issues involved are old and intractable. This has been made especially evident by the heated discussion about the political ramifications of the new technologies raging in American newspapers and journals in recent years. While only a handful of observers have gone so far as to endorse Perot's concept at face value, there is a general consensus that we are standing, willy-nilly, on the brink of a new era of electronic democracy. What this will mean for the future of American politics is a question ventured with an equal measure of apprehension and fascination.
The Perot experience is reflective of a changing political landscape. While his ideas of government by public opinion may not be new or especially noteworthy as a democratic experiment, what is new and noteworthy is the sudden initiative with which public figures are looking for alternative ways to communicate with the American citizenry — and the explosion of new media innovations that make it possible. Since the electronic town meeting may likely be the political vehicle of tomorrow, care must be taken to insure that it is developed more as a forum for genuine public dialogue than as a hi-tech Gallup poll for measuring the shifting currents of popular opinion.
Electronic Town Meeting: The Phrase
- On December 14, 1992, president-elect Clinton held a nationally aired economic conference where National Public Radio listeners were invited to put their calls directly to Mr. Clinton; the next day newspapers across the country heralded the event as the first national electronic town hall.
- In a recent story called "Rulers of the Dial," People Magazine claimed that radio call-in shows have become "America's electronic town halls."
- According to the Los Angeles Times, Santa Monica's new interactive computer network PEN (Public Electronic Network) "is functioning as a 24-hour electronic town meeting."
- The New York Times reported on October 5, 1992, that New York state's "first electronic town meeting" was held recently: "within seconds of answering a question, people could see their answers on a huge screen, arranged in bar graphs, broken down by race, religion, wealth, you name it."
These are but four examples of the way the phrase "electronic town meeting" (or "electronic town hall") has gained currency in the popular press lately. But what these examples also illustrate is the ambiguity of the phrase. It is alternately spoken of as a means of interaction with public officials, as a way of airing one's political views to a larger audience, as a method of electronic dialogue among citizens, and as a sophisticated public polling device.
Although Ross Perot popularized the term during his presidential campaign, it has been commonly used since the late sixties when scholars and researchers first began to explore the civic potential of new electronic technology. Nowadays it is routinely used together with such phrases as "teledemocracy," "technopolitics," "the new media," "insta-polling," "satellite politics," and "electronic democracy," all of which signal a new political era of unmediated communication. The newspaper editor, the mail carrier, and the TV journalist are no longer essential intermediaries in the dialogue between citizen and official. In this way, the electronic town meeting refers to civic discourse that is quick, direct, interactive and inclusive.
It should be noted that Perot's conception is something of a misnomer. It does not involve "towns" or communities (some critics have called it "couch-potato democracy" since people participate from home), nor is it a "meeting," in the true sense of the word, since there is no dialogue involved on the part of citizens, only a push-button response to pre-selected public policy options. The word "electronic" is also vague (technically, a traditional town meeting with a microphone can be called "electronic"). Instead, what seems to be universally implied by the word "electronic" is the application of interactive technology.
Electronic Town Meeting: The Concept
Over a century ago, Lord Bryce envisioned an era when the will of the majority would be "ascertainable at all times, and without the need of its passing through a body of representatives." Should this come to pass, he said, "the phrase `Rule of public opinion' might most properly be applied, for public opinion would not only reign but govern." Bryce, like de Tocqueville fifty years earlier, was a keen observer of American government. His account of "how public opinion rules in America" was the definitive work on the subject until Walter Lippmann came along.
Lippmann, one of the leading political analysts of his time, had a somber view of the public's capacities. "When the public attempts to govern directly," he wrote in 1925, "it is either a failure or a tyranny":
It is not able to master the problem intellectually, nor to deal with it except by wholesale impact. The theory of democracy has not recognized this truth because it has identified the functioning of government with the will of the people. This is a fiction. The intricate business of framing laws and of administering them through several hundred thousand public officials is in no sense the act of the voters nor a translation of their will.
Lippmann's ideas reflect a different era of American politics, to be sure, when the public was often viewed as a "great compound of folly, weakness [and] prejudice." All the same, he is very much a man of our time since his analysis of public opinion still represents the prevailing attitude about the role of the citizenry and his ideas still pose a formidable challenge to more optimistic notions of public efficacy.
One of the first conceptions of an "electronic town meeting" dates back to 1955, when psychologist Erich Fromm published The Sane Society, an account of modern society's psychologically alienating impact on the individual. He wrote, "the modern, alienated individual has opinions and prejudices, but no convictions, likes and dislikes, but no will." The process of alienation, in which the citizen "surrenders his political will" by registering a vote of agreement or disagreement with a powerful political machine, can only be offset by direct participation in the life of the community. Engagement was for Fromm the only means of reversing apathy and estrangement from public life. He proposed a return to the town meeting model whereby the whole population could be organized into groups of a few hundred people who would meet regularly to choose officials and committees and to discuss the main political issues — local and national — of the day.
After the small face-to-face groups have ... discussed matters, they will vote; with the help of the technical devices we have today, it would be very easy to register the over-all result of these votes in a short time, and then the problem would be how decisions arrived at in this way could be channeled into the level of the central government and made effective in the field of decision making.... The decision of the face-to-face groups would constitute the true "House of Commons," which would share power with the house of universally elected representatives and a universally elected executive. In this way, decision making would constantly flow, not only from above to below, but from below to above, and it would be based on an active and responsible thinking of the individual citizen.
Buckminster Fuller proposed the idea of technologically enhanced national "town meetings" as well during in the sixties. At this time, computers were being introduced as new electronic miracle machines. For example, as part of a 1966 feature called "The New Computerized Age," the Saturday Review ran a story subtitled "How ingenious experiments in opinion sampling may increase individual involvement in mass democratic government." In the article Vernon Miller wrote:
With the expansion of population, we lost much of the personal involvement and evaluation by "the people." But the combi- nation of mass media with the potential of computerized response can bring every citizen into as vital a relationship with his government as was possible in town-meeting days.
With the advent of the computer in the sixties and the subsequent proliferation of new information technologies, electronic town meetings were no longer a matter of mere speculation but became instead the subject of considerable experimentation. One of the pioneers in the field, Auburn University's Ted Becker, has been exploring teledemocracy for fifteen years. "Thank God someone like Perot has come along and legitimized the idea," he says, "now all of a sudden, I don't seem so crazy." Today the question is not whether it is possible — we know that it is — but rather, who will sponsor and organize it, and to what ends.
The Town Meeting and the Second Revolution
We stand at the threshold of a new age in American politics, sometimes referred to as the "second revolution." New communications media and information technologies have given a new face to our democratic dialogue. De Tocqueville's voluntary associations, public spaces, local newspapers and neighborhood assemblies have given way to computer bulletin boards, videotex, local access cable TV, and radio call-in programs.
At bottom, politics is a communicative enterprise. Developing and promoting public policy involves communication in every aspect: meeting people, clarifying issues, developing and refining ideas, persuading others, enlisting their support, negotiating trade-offs, etc. At the civic level this is all the more true. When we engage our neighbors in deliberative conversations that explore thorny social issues we are translating private experience into public terms. Politics, more broadly defined, begins with the free exchange of ideas — at the kitchen table, on the street corner, in the local diner or pub.
Deliberative participatory politics — where citizens and their leaders are engaged in a continual dialogue — was once the hallmark of American town hall democracy. In today's system of strict representative government, however, public officials rarely consult the public except during election campaigns. Lateral conversation — between citizens — has been discouraged by what seems to be a widening rift between public and government. Some theorists have described the failures of modern-day politics as a communication breakdown. Social historian Michael Schudson, for instance, wonders whether "the problem with our politics, at its root, [is] a failure to communicate." And Duane Elgin, who has explored electronic town meetings for over a decade, puts it in no uncertain terms: "Our choice is simple — communication or catastrophe."
The traditional media — TV, radio, newspapers and magazines — have become the backdrop of contemporary politics and have now all but replaced the traditional face-to-face exchange between citizen and official. The dialogue of politics, policy-making and especially elections has, in effect, become a monologue of glossy visuals, rhetoric and sound bites. In the age of show-business, the dialogue of democracy has become a tune-in, tune-out spectacle that asks nothing of the individual citizen, short of a biannual or quadrennial vote.
The impact of television on contemporary politics has been, by most accounts, profoundly negative. For instance, in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander delineates seven inherently antidemocratic characteristics of TV: 1) it separates people from one another; 2) it eliminates personal knowledge by removing the natural context in which it is discovered; 3) it eliminates points of comparison; 4) it appeals to sensory rather than conscious awareness; 5) it occupies the mind and removes the space needed for reflection; 6) it homogenizes knowledge and information; and 7) it encourages lethargy and substance use.
With the advent of the new media, television as a political vehicle may become recognized as a limited medium. Television is flawed in two fundamental ways: It communicates at, not with, the viewer; and it is mediated — that is, corporate and commercial interests, and media professionals in turn, determine the content. These limitations were made clear during the 1992 campaigns in particular. The candidacies of Jerry Brown and Ross Perot were characterized by a whole new approach to media coverage aptly dubbed "Talk-Show Democracy" by Newsweek magazine.
Today the prospect of interactive and direct — unmediated — communication may revolutionize entertainment programming as well as public and political discourse. Furthermore, the new media allow vast amounts of information to be processed almost instantaneously while also accommodating a broader base of civic access and participation.
Among the new media technologies are: computers (with conferencing capacities, electronic mail, and bulletin board systems); cable television (providing, in most cases, local community access, and in some cases, interactive services); satellites (which allow for direct broadcast simultaneously all over the globe); videotex (easy-to-use, low-cost, computer-based information services); interactive television; and, perhaps most importantly (at least in the short-term) fiber-optic, computer integrated telephone networks. The technological innovations that make these media possible include increasingly sophisticated computer chips, lasers, fiber optics, low-power television, digital recording, telefax, and public and commercial satellite access.
In spite of the extraordinary range of new media technologies, however, electronic communication cannot, as yet, rival face-to face communication. Most interactive media still function as two-way audio/one-way video systems, for instance. Former NBC executive John Ellis believes that electronic democracy will not come of age until the whole nation is wired with fiber-optic cable, which he estimates is ten years away.
One of the most comprehensive treatments of the new media is The Electronic Commonwealth by Jeffrey Abramson, Christopher Arterton and Gary Orren. Here the authors outline six properties characteristic of the new communications technologies:
- They explode all previous limits on the volume of information that can be exchanged.
- They make it possible to exchange information without regard, for all practical purposes, to real time and space.
- They increase the control consumers have over what messages are received and when.
- They increase the control senders have over which audiences receive which messages.
- They decentralize control over mass communications.
- They bring novel two-way or interactive capacities to television.
The Promises of Electronic Democracy
The foregoing points provide a glimpse of the democratic potential of the new media, but there are others as well. In Strong Democracy, Benjamin Barber proposes electronic forums as a means of "enhancing the quality of citizenship and the prudence of popular political judgment":
What strong democracy requires is a form of town meeting in which participation is direct yet communication is regional or even national.... The capabilities of the new technology can be used to strengthen civic education, guarantee equal access to information, and tie individuals and institutions into networks that will make real participatory discussion and debate possible across great distances. Thus for the first time we have an opportunity to create artificial town meetings among populations that could not otherwise communicate.
These advantages notwithstanding, the most popular of the new media's possibilities seem to be their application as a mass feedback system. This is regarded by some as a revolutionary prospect that can restore the public voice to America's failing political system. Interactive media mean that people can, as Ross Perot suggested, "send a laser-like message to their government giving their opinion."
These innovative media possibilities have given new life the old dream of direct democracy. While electronic citizen feedback is only recommended as advisory by some theorists, a considerable number of advocates actually propose a constitutional amendment to institutionalize electronic referenda and even direct popular democracy.
Perhaps the most ardent spokesmen for such reform are Megatrends author John Naisbitt and self-proclaimed "neo-populist," Alvin Toffler. In 1982, Naisbitt wrote: "Today, with instantaneously shared information, we know as much about what's going on as our representatives and we know it just as quickly. The fact is we have outlived the historical usefulness of representative democracy and we all sense intuitively that it is obsolete."
Similarly, in Future Shock, his extraordinary 1970 book on the technological revolution, Alvin Toffler put forth the idea of "anticipatory democracy" as an alternative to representative politics — "a system now in dire crisis." Toffler's "social futurism" would be based on a "continuing plebiscite on the future" where citizen feedback — "what kind of a world do you want ten, twenty, or thirty years from now?" — would allow the public and decision-makers to collectively shape the future. In The Third Wave, published in 1982, Toffler elaborated on his idea and included electronic referenda: "using advanced computers, satellites, telephones, cable, polling techniques, and other tools, an educated citizenry can, for the first time in history, begin making many of its own political decisions," he said.
In 1981, an oft-quoted article by Ted Becker appeared in The Futurist called "Teledemocracy." Becker surveyed a number of experiments using electronic town meetings and concluded, with a curious optimism, that "with the help of teledemocratic processes, public opinion will become the law of the land." A similar hopefulness was expressed in Richard Hollander's 1985 book Video Democracy:
The new technology makes direct democracy possible, indeed probable. As with all institutional change, this one will seep slowly into the system. It will not arrive with the crack of thunder or a new Constitutional Convention. The first video votes will be cast at the most local level. Even at that, the electronic plebiscites will be little more than public opinion samples. But gradually, legal authority will creep into the new system of polling. The power of law will replace the moral authority of public opinion. Politics as we know it will have been transformed. Call it video democracy.
Such a prospect would of course give chills to any serious defender of our constitutional heritage. The late Ithiel de Sola Pool, MIT professor and a pioneer in the field of communications technology, called this kind of "video democracy" a "science fiction fantasy." Back in 1973 — when teledemocracy was still a matter of mere speculation — he said, "no one who has given the matter a few minutes" thought proposes such a scheme ... what the future may hold is only caricatured by such proposals." He went on to say that "reforms that proclaim as their goal the securing of massive direct democracy end up producing the contrary."
That kind of electronic populism is also waved aside by Amatai Etzioni who intimates that such idealism is a throwback to the impressionable sixties. He and his team were sponsored by the National Science Foundation in 1972 to conduct some of the first experiments in electronic meetings. Their guiding principle was political philosopher Edmund Burke's argument that "large groups need two or more layers of representation, rather than direct representation, in order to work out consensus-based public policies. History has proved that large groups are unable to agree on policies by means of the kind of dialogue possible in a town meeting." Moreover, developing policies requires a level of give-and-take, guidance, and administration which "the voters neither feel compelled nor wish to be engaged in." This same objection is captured in the words of columnist George Will this way: "the people are not supposed to govern; they are not supposed to decide issues. They are supposed to decide who will decide."
Political scientist Thomas Cronin, who has devoted years of study to popular government, confesses at the outset of his 1989 book Direct Democracy that:
Although my heart tends to side with populism, my head is skeptical about the workability and desirability of many direct democracy devices. My own ambivalence is amply reinforced by the reality that most Americans are also of two minds about populist democracy. They want more of it in the abstract, yet they are often cautious and concerned about its excesses in practice. America is a nation of countless paradoxes; its citizens' ideas about democracy and governance are merely one of them.
More modest approximations to electronic democracy stress the benefits of citizen feedback. Modern technology is commonly perceived as being of greatest value in registering the political attitudes and inclinations of the public at large. In the shift away from the face-to-face politics of our forebears, political communication has increasingly come to rely on one-way media, such as television, radio and newspapers, which allow one person to communicate to many. But the new interactive media can now reverse the one-sided discussion by allowing the many to communicate back to the one. Dialogue can thus flow in a circular fashion from above to below and from below back up again. As some point out, this sort of exchange returns the true meaning to the word "dialogue." It is seen as a promising new way to build consensus, common ground, and energize the citizenry.
"As a society, we have some tough choices to make, and we need the public as a partner to make it work," says Duane Elgin, head of a group called Choosing Our Future that conducts electronic meetings in and around San Francisco. He and Ted Becker have recently formed the Electronic Town Meeting Consortium. Elgin maintains that regular dialogue and feedback keeps both citizens and officials in touch with the ebb and flow of public judgment. Constructive action is impossible without an understanding of how our fellow citizens think and feel about issues, he says. The challenge, however, "is to find a way to pool the good judgment and foresight of the public."
Paul Adams, who teaches journalism at California State University, suggests that "the concept of feedback is important in any kind of communication, whether it involves two people or a mass of them. Feedback is the personal link between communicator and receiver. It continually guides change in the communication process and brings about better understanding."
This same rationale guided Etzioni's first experiment with electronic town meetings. He explained it this way:
In a truly democratic process there is a genuine dialogue among the citizens and between them and their leaders before a vote is taken. One main purpose of this is to broaden the understanding of the citizens through pluralistic sources of information. It also allows the citizen to take into account the views and feelings of fellow citizens who are not like-minded.... A reasoned, informed, and broadly-shared position requires dialoguing.
The value of citizen feedback combined with the new media technologies thus has several distinct advantages: it has the capacity of vastly enlarging the scope of our political dialogue; it serves as an educative process that brings issues into public focus and gets them defined; it not only engages the citizenry but also promotes a deeper commitment to and understanding of public policy; and it allows public officials to consider a broader range of possible policy options on any given issue based on the real-life concerns and testimonies of everyday citizens.
The question seems to hinge on whether the citizen or the government is seen as the ultimate beneficiary of this sort of feedback. For some, the primary justification for encouraging citizen participation and response is the benefits it may yield to the individual citizen; for others, it is the government that profits most from the exchange. The answer to this question seems to rely on what model of democracy you put your faith in. Some maintain that discussions and town meetings promote. the sort of grass-roots activity that is necessary for a fully functioning democracy. Others stress the value of it simply as a tool for better governance. This latter view is predicated on the belief that the remedy to our democratic ills is a matter of numbers: if more citizens could voice their concerns and if our public officials could more readily gauge public sentiment then politics would become more inherently democratic. This is the guiding logic of Perot's United We Stand alliance, for instance. Perot has said in an interview that he wants a "discussion and a raging debate ... at the grass-roots level, not at the lobbyists' level," but there is little evidence to suggest that his electronic experiment would be more than a sophisticated public opinion survey. As James Fishkin, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says: "it's like a bunch of people volunteering to be in a Gallup poll."
James Fishkin belongs to a group of theorists who contend that deliberation is the critical factor that will determine the political usefulness of public discourse. Unless citizens are given the opportunity to explore, question, and engage each other in a give-and- take exchange on pressing issues, their feedback will be as meaningless as a Gallup poll — merely an aggregate of private snap-judgments and ill-considered opinions. "Citizens are expected to phone in their reactions off-the-cuff," Fishkin says, with "little opportunity for debate or for consideration of alternative views, and often they have little background information."
Political columnist Elizabeth Drew agrees. As she pointed out in the New Yorker, Perot "doesn't seem to have worked out whether he wants the town hall to educate people on the issues or to decide on policies." Politics involves dialogue, not the dissemination of facts and information. An electronic forum can be used to serve both ends, but then the outcomes must rest on what political philosopher Michael Sandel calls "the deliberative process that thrashes about in order to define the right questions and the range of alternatives." This point is echoed by writer Jean Bethke Elshtain who says "the electronic referendum fosters the notion that an electronic transaction is an authentic democratic choice." True democracy, however, "involves a deliberative process, participation with other citizens, a sense of moral for one's society," and a belief in the political efficacy of each citizen.
The deliberative aspect of political judgment seems to be one of the thorniest issues concerning electronic town meetings. Some theorists who have addressed this issue maintain that deliberation is a facet of democracy that can only happen in face-to-face dialogue or in a communal context, and that "electronic deliberation" is therefore impossible. The answer seems to depend on how "deliberation" is defined, however. If seen as a process that necessarily involves speech — articulating oneself verbally — then electronic media are useless unless each participant is given a voice. If, on the other hand, deliberation is judged more pragmatically by its outcomes — a heightened sense of collective judgment and communal participation (as in the colonial town meetings where many individuals chose not to speak) — then there are greater possibilities for assuring the deliberative aspect of electronic forums.
This point seems to have been side-stepped or altogether ignored in much of the literature on electronic democracy. Duane Elgin, for instance, proposes that instead of a "one-time, kneejerk response," viewers of a TV town hall call in several times and answer "multiple questions that test the strength, texture, depth, and intensity of public sentiment." His colleague, Ted Becker, supports "a multilayer web of decentralized electronic meetings" to maintain the local community aspect.
Another problem is that the new media technologies, with their capacity for real-time transmission, effectively quicken the feedback loop. On the other hand, deliberation, by nature, requires time. Michael Schudson addresses this point in the following way:
Instantaneous mass decision making actually seems to have fewer safeguards than are available for important consumer decisions. People may have waiting periods (to buy a gun or to get a marriage license) or have to sign contracts in the presence of witnesses or may even have three days after pledging their fortunes to a door-to-door salesman to change their minds. All this helps ensure a level of serious consideration in private transactions. It would seem strange indeed to call for less rigorous protection for public deliberation.
The most ambitious attempt to assure the deliberative integrity of citizen feedback has been developed by James Fishkin. He calls his model a "deliberative opinion poll," which would be taken only after "several days of small-group dialogue." This, according to Fishkin, would "represent a constructive use of the same three factors that have facilitated the rise of plebiscitary democracy — the impulse to bring the people into the process, the rise of television, and the development of public-opinion polling."
The question, however, is whether deliberation and polling are compatible in the first place. Author and communications theorist Neil Postman offers a disarming view of the practice of polling in his book Technopoly. He says that it grows out of a peculiarly American penchant for trying to measure that which is unmeasurable. Public opinion polls, like beauty contests and IQ tests, are predicated on the fallacy that human qualities and human values can be subjected to mathematical evaluation. He cites Stephen Jay Gould who said, "the mystique of science proclaims that numbers are the ultimate test of reality." Since reason — and, by extension, democratic politics — cannot be measured, it is fundamentally unscientific. Yet, paradoxically, our leaders rule, decide, and even swear by, statistics, measurement, probabilities and figures.
An opinion is not a momentary thing but a process of thinking, shaped by the continuous acquisition of knowledge and the activity of questioning, discussion, and debate. A question may "invite" an opinion, but it also may modify and recast it; we might better say that people do not exactly "have" opinions but are, rather, involved in "opinioning." That an opinion is conceived of as a measurable thing falsifies the process by which people, in fact, do their opinioning; and how people do their opinioning goes to the heart of a democratic society. Polling tells us nothing about this, and tends to hide this process from our view.
Postman calls into question the whole notion of electronic feedback. Polling may have its value, but if deliberation is seen only as a means to that end it becomes necessarily contrived and ultimately meaningless.
Participation and the Problem of Representation
The notion of televised town meetings raises another difficult question: what kind of a community is a TV audience? This question has prompted perhaps the most serious criticism of Perot's plan. Columnist Marvin Kitman, for instance, writes: "there are not many people who think of TV as a medium of information and reflection created to further understanding of problems. I don't know how to tell Ross this little fact, but TV is a medium of escape." This view is arguable, of course, but it suggests that politics must have a certain level of entertainment value to capture the attention of viewers. Tom Dworetzky, writing in Omni Magazine, points out that "most citizens monitor politics and world events the way they pay attention to a ball game on TV in the next room. It's in the background until a big play; then heads turn to catch the replay." One journalist wondered what would happen "if these electronic meetings were held opposite Seinfeld."
Christopher Arterton, dean of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, has explored this question in some depth. In his book Teledemocracy, he documents a comprehensive study of 13 experiments in electronic meetings where he discovered that even in the most successful projects participation was extremely low. Although he believes that teledemocracy can increase the number of citizens actively engaged in public affairs, he "found little support for the notion that citizens have the interest necessary to sustain near universal participation.... Most citizens, probably around two thirds, will not participate."
Richard Hollander, notwithstanding his faith in "video democracy," acknowledges the problem. "The bottom line question," he writes, "concerns participation.... In many communities citizen participation is an embarrassment." The belief that teledemocracy will enhance civic participation because people can, in Hollander's words, "vote on public policy while snuggled under an electric blanket or munching on corn chips" does not seem very realistic or even desirable. Hollander maintains that it can enhance the system and honor the American tradition, but Benjamin Barber disagrees: "A man's home is his castle, a citizen's home is his neighborhood; he can eat, sleep, and pray in the first, but he ought to vote only in the second. A suitable technology, if it is to be democracy's servant rather than its guide, will assist the citizen in doing so." Similarly, Ithiel de Sola Pool says, "it is hard to see what is gained by voting from the home, other than keeping the citizen dry if it rains."
Frank Bryan and John McClaughry, authors of The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale, have a somewhat different view of participation. They write:
We do not hold the view that nonattendance and nonvoting are evils to be avoided at all costs. Absence from town meeting can be consistent with a well-developed sense of citizenship. It is more apt to reflect the view that all is well in town and shire than the view that "it doesn't matter anyway, and besides I don't count" — an attitude which is behind the current American movement away from citizenship. Strong democracies do not fear for participation. It will occur naturally in the ebb and flow of public passion.
Bryan and McClaughry go on to suggest that we "bring the information technology to the town meeting rather than try to approximate the characteristics of a town meeting at the mass level via telecommunications." The strength of information technology, they contend, is the capacity to decentralize politics and allow communities to do for themselves. It can also bring "information to the level of public talk." Its conferencing and congregating capacity is another advantage, according to the authors, yet "this is its least important function." The key, they conclude, is that technology and democracy be used together on a "human scale." Etzioni's claim that the new media can enable "millions of people [to] enter into dialogue with each other and their representatives" sounds absurd to Bryan and McClaughry: "A dialogue of millions?" they ask, "it would produce a din, not a democracy."
The electronic forum may require some form of face-to-face assembly among members of a community if it is to be more genuinely democratic. These community gatherings could then be electronically linked to other communities such that an interactive network might be established to explore issues of mutual concern. Such a prospect seems more reliable than the pseudo-participation of a phone hook-up or push-button response from home.
Some theorists address the issue of participation not in terms of scale, but representation. Fishkin speaks at length in his book Democracy and Deliberation about the need for "formal political equality." By this he means that the nation's diversity — race, age, ethnicity, urbanization, economic class, region, etc. — must be reflected in the group for it to be truly representative. This concern is shared by Duane Elgin who insists that the participants represent a "pre-selected, scientific sample of citizens." Political consultant Leonard Oliver agrees. Representation of minority views is the greatest challenge, he says, since all too often the range of concerns and policy alternatives reflect the views particular to the American mainstream.
TV town halls can never be representative in this sense — any more than a radio call-in show can — since the sample of viewers is self-selected. Norman Bradburn, director of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, calls it a SLOP — a Self-selected Listener Opinion Poll. The problems with unrepresentative viewership and/or participation in an electronic forum is illustrated by James Howard, adviser to president Nixon, who conducted a series of loosely structured citizen forums around the country in 1969 "to get a clearer idea of public needs and interests." He explains that "nearly every meeting was dominated by a few well-prepared people. They were obviously representatives of organized groups with defined interests. We could think of no way to prevent this, short of investigating everyone who attended, which would subvert the process." This problem can perhaps be circumvented by keeping strictly to small community forums, but as long as the "community" is composed of anonymous viewers, or is defined as broadly as a city, state or nation, plurality is a key factor.
Electronic Town Meetings: A Survey
The preceding pages provide an overview of some of the theoretical implications of electronic forums. Let's turn now to their practical applications. As political observer Hazel Henderson has remarked, "in the millions of words written on the Perot phenomenon, few [have] examined the historical experience with electronic town hall meetings, public opinion polling, and efforts underway to prevent abuses and perfect such new feedback channels." As she suggests, the current discussion of the new media is still predominantly speculative. In the wealth of articles and reports on electronic democracy, only a handful actually refer to the many initiatives now underway, and still fewer draw on the growing body of research that has already been done in the field. It is strange and not altogether encouraging to notice that the social will to experiment with technology in politics is so great that very little attention is being given to the democratic consequences of such endeavors.
The first "electronic" town meeting — in the technical sense, at least — may have been the pre-W.W.II NBC radio program "Town Meeting of the Air," where panelists discussed pressing national issues such as fascism, democracy, and escalating crime rates. It was neither interactive nor genuinely public, however, since its audience merely listened to a dialogue between expert panelists.
In 1955, the same year Fromm outlined his idea for the "true House of Commons" earlier described, WOI-TV in Ames, Iowa, aired a series of 26 programs on school-district consolidation called "The Whole Town is Talking." As Hazel Henderson points out, "WOI-TV so successfully stimulated voter response that a special session of the state legislature was called to act on the issue. Even more amazing, by popular demand, its deliberations were also televised, and the consensus on implementing a consolidation plan was achieved."
Henderson also describes another early experiment conducted by MIT's Operation Research Center which might be called an "electronic complaint box" where an interactive computer system was implemented in several government agencies to better respond to the needs and opinions of the citizenry.
In the early seventies, Amatai Etzioni and his team conducted the MINERVA experiments (the name refers to the Roman goddess of political wisdom, but it was also a clever acronym for Multiple Input Network for Evaluating Reactions, Votes and Attitudes). It was an attempt to broaden participation in the regular meetings of an apartment complex community in New York — but without compromising the quality of participation. Panelists discussed various community issues and residents could participate in the discussion from a special room equipped with a video camera. After the forum, viewers were asked to answer questionnaires about the issues discussed, their responses to the format and the experiment as a whole. It was a success according to Etzioni, even though Arterton analyzed the experiment and found a few shortcomings. Participants were not given equal access time, he observed, and questions were not addressed sequentially since residents participated in the discussion on a first-come basis and responded to different aspects of the conversation. Moreover, the participation was evidently quite low.
Another experiment under the guidance of Etzioni, and also sponsored by NSF, was conducted by Richard Remp for the Center for Policy Research in New York. Remp staged a series of 16 telephone conference calls in order to explore the possibilities of wider involvement in public decision-making. "Our data indicate the electronic meetings worked, and worked quite well," Remp concluded. "The absence of visual cues did not create serious problems in the discussions. Access to the floor was easy, attention good, and participation was eager. Further, the participants felt that the analysis of the topic had been effective." Remp also noted that there was "less pressure to go along with group opinion than in face-to-face meetings, and more ease in changing opinions and positions." This aspect of conference calls may be called "intellectual elbow room," he says.
An extraordinary series of events took place in Philadelphia in 1976 — the year that city was due to host the national bicentennial celebration. After a dispute had arisen between the Pennsylvania State Bicentennial Commission and the people of Philadelphia, who did not feel their interests were sufficiently represented in the planning of the event, a series of virtually impromptu electronic town meetings were conducted over KYW-TV — orchestrated in part by Annenberg professor Robert Lewis Shayon (who was also involved in the WOI-TV, Iowa, initiative two decades earlier). Twelve citizens were given a crash course on the issues involved and then debated the pros and cons of the alternatives while thousands of callers registered their views in heated exchanges over the air. Printed ballots were also circulated in the local papers, at banks and in stores. While Shayon reported considerable pressure from officials to suspend or rig the broadcast, it was carried through and not only was the hotly contested site changed, but the PSBC chairman was replaced. Neither the program nor the votes were designed to be more than advisory, yet they succeeded in redefining the project completely based on the attitudes, and even the consensus, of the community at large.
In the late seventies, Ted Becker initiated two projects in Hawaii — the Hawaii Televote and the Honolulu Electronic Town Meeting. Both of these enterprises were actually a series of discrete efforts that were designed to aid the constitutional convention of 1978 and the state legislature from 1978 to 1980. They are differentiated because they constitute two separate methods of citizen feedback. In the Hawaii Televote a random sample of citizens were asked to participate in a telephone opinion survey. This was not an ordinary poll, however, since the participants were mailed a brochure presenting different issues and perspectives on which they were supposed to reflect for a certain length of time before responding. They were also encouraged to deliberate with their families and neighbors on the issues before calling in to cast their votes. The Honolulu Electronic Town Meeting was different because of the nature of citizen representation: here the audience was self-selected. This project combined public affairs television programs — on local Hawaiian issues, the nuclear arms race, and Reaganomics — with the possibility of citizen feedback. Viewers could either call in their response during or after the program or mail in ballots from the local newspaper.
Most of the electronic projects during the seventies — as illustrated by the preceding examples — involved two or more media. Often a TV broadcast was combined with a newspaper campaign, to disseminate the information, whereupon citizens would respond by telephone or by mail. The interaction was only electronic in the literal sense, not in the nature of participation — it was not live, in other words. Three other initiatives can be briefly mentioned that further reflect this approach to citizen feedback.
In the mid-seventies, Washington state sponsored a project Alvin Toffler would call an adventure in anticipatory democracy: citizens were encouraged to participate in the formulation of Washington's long-range agenda for the future. Through numerous multi-media efforts, including eleven newspapers and several public broadcasting stations, as well as workshops and community forums and finally ballots and polls, the people of Washington collectively arrived at alternatives for the future. The turnout was a "huge success," according to Ted Becker, although ultimately "the state legislature proved recalcitrant in moving on the recommendations [the project] developed."
Similarly, the Regional Plan Association of New York designed a project for engaging citizens in its planning efforts in 1973 — it was called Choices for 76. Five films were aired on 18 stations in the New York area and community forums were conducted in which the documentaries were discussed. Citizens then returned ballots printed in local newspapers. The return on the $2 million project to involve "the people" in the public policy process was evidently a great disappointment, however.
The Public Agenda Foundation (PAF) launched a similar campaign in Des Moines in December 1982. After over two months of public service announcements, public affairs programs on radio and television, community forums and special newspaper reports, ballots were sent out to 125,000 households inside the Des Moines Register. This was a costly undertaking, but the rate of participation was apparently quite high. The PAF's attempt to transform mass opinion into "public judgment" was, even according to the ever-sober Christopher Arterton, "a significant success."
One of the most widely referred to initiatives in the field of two-way technology is the QUBE interactive cable system installed by Warner-Amex in Columbus, Ohio. This project is cited as often by ardent advocates of teledemocracy as by its most die-hard critics, it seems. Hollander, Becker and Toffler refer to it as an "embryonic," primitive incarnation of tomorrow's technology. More pessimistic observers, such as Columbus Dispatch critic Jeff Borden, maintain that "QUBE is the perfect example of technology outstripping the imagination that created it."
The QUBE system was designed as an interactive information service whereby subscribers could do their shopping and banking, answer public opinion polls, send and receive electronic mail, and even protect their homes against burglars and fire. The technology had been in place over three years before its civic potential was realized. As a promotional production by which Warner-Amex tried to showcase QUBE's potential to other cities, an electronic town meeting was staged in Upper Arlington, a Columbus suburb. A four-hour planning meeting on traffic and zoning problems served as a basis for viewer response via a box of push-buttons. The results of this flash polling registered directly on the screen. To the chagrin of some viewers, however, the politicians paid very little attention to these votes during the proceedings. Upper Arlington mayor Richard Moore called it "a waste of time." While this was only one of a number of public affairs programs aired over QUBE, this was undoubtedly the most ambitious and expensive. Several celebrities were flown in (among them, Alvin Toffler), and special hosts with familiar faces moderated the exchange, hundreds of invitations were mailed out, the press ran stories about it in advance, and a half-hour explanatory program was aired on QUBE over a hundred times in the two weeks preceding the event. But, for all the effort, response was tepid at best. Not long thereafter QUBE confronted economic hard times and had to be discontinued.
As a democratic experiment, QUBE has been very instructive. In light of Perot's plans in 1993, we would do well to reconsider some of the reasons why QUBE's electronic town hall failed. Jeffrey Abramson, co-author of The Electronic Commonwealth, summed it up this way: "Rates of participation were low; those who participated were not a scientifically polled sample of the population; the costs of subscribing to QUBE reintroduced a poll tax on voting; children could be pushing the buttons; no controls prevented QUBE's computer from spying in through the television set."
Reading, Pennsylvania, is home to a considerably more successful enterprise in electronic forums. Reading, a city of around 80,000, has conducted regular electronic town meetings for over 15 years. Initiated under a grant from NSF, the Municipal Access Channel — known as Berks Community Television (BCTV) — allows the mayor and city council members a half-hour of air-time for monthly forums. During the program city officials can discuss any issues they feel are pertinent to the community and viewers are invited to participate either by phone or by video (installed in several studio sites around the community). Originally, thanks to NSF money, the technology was quite sophisticated and allowed split-screen programming whereby both ends could see each other. When the funds dried up, however, they had to adopt a less interactive format. These forums are very popular in the community and the "ratings" are quite high. Ann Sheehan, BCTV's executive director, says that because of the regular programming, "people are much more sophisticated about what government can and can't do."
A similar outfit in North Carolina is called OPEN-Net (Open Public Events Network) which has been in service since 1979. They have conducted a series of "electronic town halls" that go back to 1983. These weekly three-hour programs are broadcast over fifty cable systems throughout the state and during the first half a documentary or video-taped meeting is aired, and after that citizens can put their calls directly to studio guests (usually policy-makers) — one could call it a form of electronic Larry King Live.
Santa Barbara conducted a similar electronic town meeting in the spring of 1990 — when the city was in its fifth drought year — to obtain citizen input on the water crisis. A panel of officials and experts discussed the issues and were moderated by a local journalist. During the program callers put forth their ideas and opinions in an open exchange.
In April of 1990, Savannah, Georgia, also orchestrated a hi-tech town hall. The event was part of a visioning process called "Vision 20/20." The local CBS affiliate donated its time and services to broadcast a half-hour roundtable discussion with city officials where viewers at home were able to phone in and answer two questions: What are the strengths of our community and What are its weaknesses? Following the broadcast, discussion groups were conducted at each of the viewing sites, after which the groups prioritized their concerns for Savannah's future. Following the evening news, the results from the home viewer poll and the viewing site discussions were broadcast.
Other similar initiatives have been undertaken in Seattle and Los Angeles as well (mayoral electronic town meetings). And in Oregon, governor Barbara Roberts actually used interactive television to decide policy. Some 10,000 citizens voted against new taxes and for downsizing state government. The governor readily obliged by announcing plans to cut 4,000 state jobs and outlining a detailed strategy of government restructuring. No sooner had she made her announcement before she was in a legal bind, however. Under Oregon law, a petition bearing less than 15 percent of the electorate is invalid and if acted upon can jeopardize the gubernatorial seat. This extraordinary experiment in direct democracy was reported in the The Economist, with a warning to all those "beguiled by Ross Perot's notion of electronic town meetings."
All of the preceding cases of electronic democracy involve broadcasting in some form, but there are also numerous initiatives underway within the field of computer networking. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is altogether different from audio and visual communication. Christopher Arterton delineates five qualities unique to computers. First, the medium is an egalitarian one: all comments require equal attention, he explains, since written words are neutral until read. Secondly, due to the structure of software programs and the "gate-keeping" function of a moderator, there is an "engineered hierarchy" — the equivalent, perhaps, of an editorial bias — at work in computerized dialogue. The "terseness" factor, a third feature of on-line communications, also compromises nuance and detail in such exchanges, he says, since users are charged based on their connect time. Anonymity is another quality unique to computer conferencing which Arterton maintains can compromise the deliberative tone and the interpersonal respect more natural in face-to-face dialogue. Finally, the computer is an "asynchronous" medium which can enable communication across the barriers of time and space — people separated geographically can have a dialogue without having to both be present at once. This is the computers "strongest advantage," according to Arterton.
Social scientists Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler elaborate on the anonymity factor by suggesting that without the cues common to everyday talk, people respond differently. Facial and verbal cues are essential in order to gauge the emotional response of another person. Computer discourse, blind to these subtleties, is often inflammatory and extreme.
One more phenomenon common to on-line communication should be mentioned: many computer users do not actively respond to the discussion items, but remain "lurking" — a computer term used to describe reading without responding to conversations that appear on the screen.
Of the various democratic applications of computer networks, there are several examples. In the early eighties, when personal and minicomputers began to emerge as a bona fide communications medium, two primary sources offered the public conferencing capacities: the Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES) and The Source Telecomputing Corporation (generally referred to simply as "The Source"). To understand their usefulness as vehicles for public discourse, Arterton studied over sixty computer conferences but he found that less than ten percent of them could be even broadly defined as political.
That was ten years ago, when computer networking was still in its infancy. Since then, networks and bulletin board systems (BBS's) have grown dramatically. Today there are a number of networks devoted exclusively to public affairs. The most celebrated is the Public Electronic Network (PEN) in Santa Monica, California. Started in February 1989, the network was designed to enhance civic participation in community affairs. Users are able to submit comments to city officials and receive a guaranteed response within 24 hours. They can also participate in any of the 300 on-line discussion groups, access the city's computerized library catalogue, and check the bulletin board of city services and public meetings. PEN is free to all residents of Santa Monica and to some residents who have dealings with the city. The public's response has been exceedingly good, by most accounts. PEN already has several thousand subscribers. Since Hewlett-Packard donated all the hardware (worth an estimated $350,000), the city only pays for the system's maintenance, which runs between $75,000 and $100,000 annually. The expense is evidently too steep for less affluent communities around the nation, however, even though many have explored the possibilities of adopting their own version of PEN.
Kansas City has installed a similar, if somewhat more limited, network. The computers are known collectively as "City Hall in the Mall" since they are installed in Kansas City's two largest shopping malls. The project began in early 1988 and was developed in three phases: first, as a one-way information access system, then as an "electronic complaint box" of sorts for registering comments and opinions, and finally as a fully interactive service that allows citizen-city hall transactions. Hillsborough County, Florida (Tampa and surrounding areas), has also installed a City Hall in the Mall system, while Mercer Island, Washington (a wealthy bedroom community outside Seattle), too small for shopping malls, have used neighborhood grocery stores instead.
A number of public computer networks function more as forums for lively public discourse — between citizens — than as vehicles for public-governmental communication. CompuServe, the WELL, USENET, America On-Line and GENIE are but a few examples. One network, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), even defines itself as an "electronic community" with a "neighborly sense of belonging." EFF's co-founder, Mitchell Kapor, describes it as a citizen action group dedicated to securing "our society's highest traditions of free and open flow of information and communication."
The Prodigy network hosted an on-line "electronic town hall" during the 1992 campaigns where George Bush interacted directly with the citizens; over a five-day period he reportedly drew some 15,000 electronic comments and questions. Democratic presidential candidate Jerry Brown held a similar question and answer session over GENIE (General Electric Network for Information Exchange) in March 1992, where voters had "the rare opportunity to question a major candidate directly and receive an immediate answer," as Brown's spokesman Arthur Mortell said.
An International Perspective
Hazel Henderson recently observed a curious paradox: "it is in the United States that [the] search for a way to understand the will of the people has stalled just as other countries are looking to the US and its more than 200 years of experience with votes and prices as a model of democracy and open markets." Because of America's honored democratic heritage and the attendant hesitation to toy with unproven technologies, experiments in teledemocracy are still conservative by international standards. It can be argued that the technological revolution set in much earlier in countries like France, Japan, Canada and Sweden. These countries were wired long before the United States and the openness to explore new technologies appears to have been beset by fewer regulations and precautions. While the veteran journalist and former CBS News President Fred Friendly suggested some years ago that America needs an "electronic bill of rights," citizens in Sweden and Germany were already fretting about the impending age of no privacy where democracy was becoming more and more of an electronic tyranny.
The research into the democratic and civic uses of the new technologies in the U.S. has been of a decidedly different character than that of other countries. The American spirit observed by Alexis de Tocqueville is still the guiding feature of most attempts to implement interactive mechanisms here at home — the desire to take part in the dialogue of democracy. In other countries, more compelling incentives, such as speed, cost-effectiveness, and ease of use, seem to have superseded the more cautious democratic rationale. Still, the U.S. could no doubt learn a great deal from countries abroad about developing electronic media for better civic communication. Interactive systems were on-line and ready for everyday use in several countries when the United States was still speculating on their potential. Canada's Teledon, France's Intelmatique and Minitel, and Japan's Hi-Ovis systems are but a few examples.
Efforts to engage the public in more direct forms of democratic decision making — unencumbered by representative and bureaucratic processes — also have a long history abroad. Over the years, referenda on issues ranging from France's presence in Algeria, England's membership in the Common Market, Spain's adoption of a new constitution, and Italy's abortion laws, have all been decided by majority rule. Switzerland's national legislation is based almost exclusively on this system. The Maastricht Treaty and Canada's constitutional referenda are two very recent examples of this form of direct citizen involvement. These methods of governance will undoubtedly become subject to modern electronic technology in the coming years.
Direct democracy may not be feasible in a nation like the United States (except in determining state and community issues, which is now done in more than half of the nation's states), but strictly advisory electronic referenda can be profoundly useful, as these European examples illustrate. According to Thomas Cronin, "more Americans favor than oppose the idea of a national referendum; and 58 percent of those surveyed in a Gallup poll I commissioned in 1987 favored having a national advisory referendum..." Benjamin Barber agrees. In an article entitled "Voting is Not Enough," he maintains that in order "to remain free we will have to remain democratic; and to remain democratic we will have to acknowledge that voting presidents in and out of office is not enough." In Strong Democracy, he also sets forth a series of proposals for strong democratic decision-making, among them "a national initiative and referendum process."
The Future of Interactive Technology
Numerous projects are currently underway that suggest that electronic town meetings will soon be a regular part of political life. The Federal Communications Commission, in conjunction with IVDS (Interactive Video and Data Systems), for instance, recently initiated a project with Radio Telecom & Technology in Riverside, California, TV Answer in Reston, Virginia, and Interactive Network (IN) in Mountain View, California, which will be a year-long experiment in nine cities throughout the country in electronic town meetings. IN is a reincarnation of Warner-Amex's QUBE outfit — possibly more sophisticated — operating in the San Francisco and Sacramento metropolitan areas. They conducted a series of public opinion polls during the 1992 campaigns, but have yet to conduct interactive forums. IN, according to one optimistic report, "is a revolutionary new family entertainment service that lets the subscriber play along LIVE with shows they already watch on TV...."
CNN has also been exploring the possibilities of interactive TV to gauge public opinion (they were even awarded a Markle Foundation grant to pursue the endeavor) yet were forced to put the idea on hold because of the difficulty of ascertaining a statistically reliable sample of viewer response. Perot's entourage United We Stand America seems bent on proceeding in spite of such obstacles, however. On January 15, 1993, they held a Perot-style Electronic Town Hall in Dallas where deficit reduction, campaign financing and lobbying regulations were put to the citizens for instant tele-feedback.
The Clinton administration, too, seems eager to explore the potential of the new media. Through e-mail and BBS's, citizens will have an open line to the White House, according to the latest reports. Presidential orders, speeches and other communications will be transmitted directly to the people — "bypassing" the news media. The Clinton team is reportedly considering installing video phones at the White House as well.
The Politics of Tomorrow
From the preceding survey of electronic town meetings it is clear that the concept has a wide range of meanings and applications. Christopher Arterton, one of the more thoughtful and comprehensive researchers in the field, concludes that electronic experiments cannot be evaluated without addressing the objectives of the funders and organizers. "The effectiveness of political participation," he says, is "rooted not in technological capacity but in the models of participation that project initiators [carry] in their heads." The political objectives, in other words, precede — in effect, override — the application of technology. This point seems to confirm the view that technology cannot make democracy more democratic. But it also illustrates another fact: If, as Arterton suggests, "the nature of participation evoked was a product of the values brought to the endeavor by the project organizer," then it is incumbent upon us to envision a more broadly defined electronic town meeting that is more democratically useful than the models hitherto conceived. Rather than "quickening" democracy through electronic referenda, touch-tone voting, and tele-town meetings, we can invent ways of using electronic media to slow down and enhance the democratic process.
In 1948, George Orwell wrote, "with the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end." The year 1984 is behind us, but not, it seems, the dim fears of electronic tyranny. Still today there is a pervasive suspicion that technology will spell the end of democracy as we know it. "Big Brother is watching you," Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When the real year came, media critic Mark Crispin Miller suggested instead that nowadays "Big Brother is you, watching." His analysis of television's effects on modern society could be summed up in Benjamin Barber's words: "once a nation of talkers, we have turned into a nation of watchers — once doers, we have become viewers." But today, as we stand on the brink of a new age of electronic communication, we are no longer mere spectators. Now, as Duane Elgin said, "you are watching Big Brother."
Orwell's novel was not a doomsday prophecy so much as a chilling metaphor of externally imposed oppression by the state. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, written a few years before Orwell's book, entertained a similar prospect of the future — but with one fundamental difference: in Huxley's vision, people would come to love their oppression and even the technologies that undo their ability to reason. Neil Postman — who makes this point very well — writes: "Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.... Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."
The visions of Orwell and Huxley — different yet complementary — are interesting in this context because they represent the same lack of faith in positive change that has characterized the debate over electronic democracy. We must not forget that the change is already upon us, and it is far greater than the intellectuals presume in their articles and commentaries on Ross Perot. While it is obviously necessary to explore the potential abuses of the new media, and to create genuinely democratic ways of using them, we must also bear in mind that prudence can stifle progress.
The current literature seems to suggest that we have a choice to make between teledemocracy and democracy-as-usual. The former represents all the excitement of hi-tech politics, the potential for vastly increasing direct citizen participation, and even the possibility of speeding up many processes of government. The other choice, far less appealing perhaps, is the democracy we currently practice, with its attendant civic frustration, political abuses, ubiquitous Gallup polls, and media pontificators. Yet this dichotomy is illusory — the choice is already made and we have chosen both. Rather than seek to design the single right way to use electronic town meetings, we need to recognize that as tomorrow's medium there will be as many uses for them as there are project organizers willing to orchestrate them.
Democracy has taken a quantum leap in recent years. We have refashioned the old world order into a global community. Information and communication technologies have changed our conception of the world by permitting us to transcend cultural, political, and geographical boundaries. In the West we are also living in a post-industrial age when information itself has become the currency of our national economies. Politics has no choice but to adapt to these changes. As New York Times's Washington correspondent R.W. Apple, Jr. recently observed,
With the whole country wired, ordinary voters in Kansas with time on their hands have a better grip on events in Washington, through CNN or C-SPAN, than harried officials here. This is especially true when hearings are involved; so quick is the response that senatorial aides field telephone calls from home and rush to the hearing room to hand their bosses notes advising them not to look prosecutorial or to change their posture as they ask questions.
Apple goes on to say that "the change is already taking place" — politics can no longer be handled behind the closed doors of Washington, it is the people's business. Perot himself merely demonstrated this fact. As Hazel Henderson observes, "he understood what rebels around the world have long known: that coups are best accomplished by capturing radio and television stations, rather than legislative or governmental buildings." The political imperative, she says, is to redesign and readapt our media to function as self-regulating "feedback-loops." "If democracy doesn't adapt to technological innovations, it risks losing the faith of the people."
The future of electronic democracy seems fairly certain: the question is not "whether" but "how" to combine communications technology and democratic practices. If, as Langdon Winner observed, the "phenomenon of technological politics is to be overcome, a truly political technology must be put in it's place." To do that requires a reconsideration — and possibly a redefinition — of all the democratic imperatives. If we find that genuine politics begins with active participation, on the part of each of us, in the democratic dialogue, then we are back to the question, how can technology better help us communicate with one another?