Diana McCarty on Fri, 4 Oct 96 01:17 MET

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nettime:electronic democracy

                            ELECTRONIC DEMOCRACY

                           Politics in Cyberspace

                              Richard Barbrook

At the end of the twentieth century, the advocates of liberal democracy are
faced with a strange paradox. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its
ideological ascendancy across the world has never been more complete. Yet,
at the same time, voters within the industrialised countries are
increasingly disillusioned with the political process. Tarnished by broken
promises and widespread sleaze, the present British Conservative government
is held in contempt even by its erstwhile supporters. In the recent French
presidential elections, the eventual winner - Jacques Chirac - was the first
choice of only a fifth of the electorate. In the USA, the situation is even
worse. In successive elections, a majority of Americans haven't bothered to
vote at all.

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.

Yet, despite its limitations, the Net can still improve the dissemination of
political information and improve the accountability of elected
representatives. For example, the Zapatista rebels in the Chiapas region of
southern Mexico have been using Web sites and newsgroups to call for support
for their struggle for land reform. Jose Angel Gurria - Mexico's Foreign
Minister - recently acknowledged that the government had been forced into
half-hearted negotiations with the insurgents only because of the power of
local and global public opinion mobilised by the Net. It is becoming much
more difficult for those in authority to look the other way when news
reports made by those people suffering from economic exploitation and
corrupt officials are being sent directly into the homes of their

Despite not realising the direct democracy dreamed of by left or right-wing
anarchists, this more limited version of the electronic agora will play a
key role in revitalising our democratic institutions. As the Demos
think-tank has recently pointed out, electronic democracy will only be
useful as one part of an overall modernisation of the political process -
along with electoral reforms, protection of civil liberties, curbs on
corruption and an end to official secrecy. Technology cannot cure political
or social problems by itself, but it can be used to reinforce human
solutions. Back in the late-eighteenth century, republican philosophers
called for the creation of an informed citizenry who would possess the
knowledge needed to make those political decisions affecting their own
lives. Maybe, as we enter the twenty-first century, the Net will help to
realise this democratic ideal for the first time.

A shortened version of this article appeared in New Scientist, 29 July 1995.
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