electronic democracy by richard barbrook

The Technological Fix

As the alienation of voters increases, technology is increasingly been touted as a magical cure for this pressing political problem. Mesmerised by the rapid convergence of telecommunications, the media and computing, many people now believe that the 'information superhighway' will create the conditions for the direct participation of all citizens in political decision-making. (For instance, see the writings of Howard Rheingold). Back in the '60s, this technological utopia was first propounded by the Situationists and other New Left groups. Rejecting distrusted party politicians, these young revolutionaries wanted people to run their own lives through a hi-tech form of direct democracy - the electronic agora. Inspired by this vision, activists across the world set up a wide variety of radical media from pirate radio stations to hackers' bulletin boards. (See my article on Media Freedom).

In a bizarre twist, this left-wing anarchism is now being echoed by free-market zealots within the American Republican party. Newt Gingrich - the Speaker of the House of Representatives - believes that the Internet will create 'electronic town halls' where voters can directly participate within the political process. Fearful of big government, American conservatives hope that information technologies will allow them to return to the simple days of the early Republic when hard-working white folk solved their own problems through public meetings rather than relied upon the impersonal aid of the welfare state. (See the publications of the Progress and Freedom Foundation).

Whether from left or right, these techno-utopians hope that the gulf between the electorate and their representatives can be overcome by connecting them together electronically - or by bypassing the politicians altogether. However, up to now, the reality of electronic democracy has been rather more prosaic. Soon after he was elected, President Bill Clinton set up a Web site for the White House where government documents can be downloaded and e-mail can be sent. Following this precedent, other American politicians and foreign governments have also established their own Web sites to promote their views. Some politicians have even taken part in discussions within newsgroups or in on-line conference. Yet, in reality, these experiments have not lived up to the hype of the utopians. Tapping furiously on a keyboard to your M.P. can't suddenly overcome decades of cynicism about the political process. More seriously, the membership of this embryonic electronic agora has so far been limited to a privileged minority of engineers, academics and professionals who have access to the Net.

Yet, even when the whole population is eventually wired up, the utopia of direct democracy will still face the most important obstacle of all: the problem of how large numbers of people can make communicate and take decisions together. However good it is, a new technology cannot solve fundamental social and political problems by itself. Back in the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau - the Enlightenment philosopher - believed that democracy could only be created through a public meeting of all citizens - as happened in Swiss villages or New England towns of the period. However, with the emergence of modern nation states, it was no longer possible for every citizen to meet in one place at the same time. Even if the electronic agora eliminates the physical limitations on citizens gathering together in one place by creating virtual spaces, it cannot remove the entirely social problem of how large groups of people can successfully interact with one another. As shown by existing Net conferencing programs, it becomes very difficult to hold a meaningful conversation if everyone is talking at once. Unless an electronic agora only consists of a small number of people, some form of representation will have to be used to mediate between the different social, cultural and geographical groups wishing to shape political decision-making. Despite the dreams of the techno-anarchists, wiring up the country wouldn't get rid of the need for professional politicians.


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