Welcome to my second quadrennial installment of "Digital Politics" in CACM. This column will appear in print just as the United States national elections take place. This is a propitious moment to assess just how far we have come toward a digitally-enhanced democracy since my last assessment (CACM, October, 1996).
DIGITAL POLITICS 1996
In my column four years ago, I tried to objectively critique the political uses of cyberspace at that time. My guiding theme remains as timely and appropriate today as then: is there any reason to believe that the Internet and cyberspace are having a significant positive effect on the political activities of modern democracies? I was suspicious during the United States national elections in 1996.
Democracies, or at least "Western democracies," are at the same time the most robust and fragile of governments. Their robustness derives from their theoretically broad-based social foundation: all "responsible" citizens are allowed to participate equally in the political processes of government, via fair and free elections. The electorate becomes enlightened via such freedoms as speech, press, assembly, and the like, and casts its will by majority rule. This power of the majority, constrained by the commonly agreed-upon, persistent "law of the land" of constitutional democracies, is a formidable barrier to both the abuse of power and the tyranny of self-serving minorities - whether political, religious, or ethnic. Government is thus regulated by formal consensus rather that serendipity, tradition, or divine inspiration. Or, at least that's how it's supposed to work.
The fragility of democracies derives from the practical difficulties of pulling all of this off. Participatory democracies, with few exceptions, tend not to be all that participatory. In the United States, for example, participation of half the eligible voters in national elections is a noteworthy event (it was 48.8% in 1996). Further, the sets of the "voting electorate" and the "responsible citizens" are not coextensive. In addition, elections are not always fair and free, and their outcomes are heavily influenced by monied interests. There are also subtle, but effective, obstacles to isolating the principles of free speech, press and assembly from the economic and social realities of the moment. And for all intents and purposes, universal suffrage exists in name only - some groups are consistently under-represented at the polls. While a work of art in theory, democracy is always under stress in practice.
There are some who have claimed that the Internet is the ultimate proselytizing agent and protector of democracy - the technological advance with the greatest potential for overcoming the fragility of democracy. I didn't see any evidence of that in 1996. In this column we seek to determine whether anything has changed in the interim.
As I put it in 1996: "...the Internet revolution has the ability to change the nature of the political communication from internal, organizational, and private - as it is now - to external, constituent-based and public. One-way political pronouncements might evolve into two-way political dialogs. Democracy may never be the same again. Perhaps."
DIGITAL POLITICS 2000
The technological imperative again rears it's ugly head. The technological imperative is the use of technology for it's own sake with little recognition of whether anything significant is actually being accomplished. I used as an example, the Web bill boarding that was in widespread use by national politicians and political parties in 1996 - with no room left for interaction or participation - which is especially ironic given that we pride ourselves on this participatory democracy of ours. The campaign Websites for the Republican and Democratic parties as of late August appear below. I welcome you to the challenge of finding potential for genuine interaction in either site (besides, of course, the opportunity to volunteer your time in support of the cause via CGI forms, and subscribe to automated email distribution lists).
So, with the possible exception of a few advances in multimedia, little appears to have changed since 1996. We still have a straightforward paradigmatic example of rectified information flow: digital bill boarding taken to an art form. Where the Gore camp has decided to throw in a little animation (e.g., the "Bush Debate Duck" window) and a Web Cam (reminiscent of such bandwidth banditry as the Cambridge Coffee Room Coffee Pot of old), the Bush folks throw in the occasional live, online audio feed from a sympathetic voice and a simple-minded CGI trivia game. From a technological point of view, there's nothing that even pretends to be innovative on either site. In 1996 I said: "After visiting a few hundred political Web sites, the adjective "uninspired" comes to mind." Nothing has changed so far as I can see but a few extensions in the gratuitous use of multimedia.
The same can be said, incidentally, for both the Green Party (www.nader.com) and Pat Buchanan's Website (www.buchanan.org) with the exception that the Buchanan Web site designers seem to be among the last to figure out that organizing Web pages with linear lists isn't scalable - this site's scroll bar will run you right off your mousepad! Another thing that I find interesting about this site is that it links to a Reform Party Website (www.reform-party-usa.org) for which all links to committees, elected officials, Presidential Candidates 2000, candidates are fractured as of this writing. The humor value of Buchanan's site linking to Political Party Website that disavows any recognition of his candidacy should not be overlooked.
I would be remiss if I were to fail to mention that the Whitehouse Homepage (www.whitehouse.gov - be careful with the top-level domain name or you're in for a real eye opener!) has taken a distinct turn for the better in the past four years. Freed of its gratuitous Java applet of unfurled flag fluttering in the virtual, digital breeze, and the cutesy CGI welcome which not only changed from "good morning," to "good afternoon," to "good evening," during the day, but also changed the level of background illumination behind the Whitehouse (that, incidentally, only worked correctly in one time zone), it has now taken on a minimalist beauty of its own. It is worth comparing the current homepage with its 1996 ancestor reproduced in my column. It may have cost the taxpayer a few million dollars to bring the Whitehouse Web staff to the level of understanding that they could have achieved by requesting a single-paragraph review from Jakob Nielsen, but progress is progress at any cost I guess.
As I pointed out in 1996, sitting politicians have an enormous advantage in using public-domain resources (e.g., portrait galleries of former presidents with attached biographies, guides to Federal services and resources, access to an array of public documents) that can be used to enhance the content of their "government-cum-political-overtones" sites. As I said before, "the advantages of incumbency will apply to cyberspace as they do in other aspects of political life," so I guess that we shouldn't be surprised.
In 1996 I was concerned that the Web would become the inexpensive, propaganda vehicle of choice for modern pols. I observed "An exciting new technology like the World Wide Web is simply too much for a politician to overlook. Attracted to the hype like moths to flame, politicians throughout the computerized world seek to establish a presence on the Web - in many cases before they connect their offices to the Internet." Any change in political attitude since then has eluded me.
I still see no compelling evidence that the Web and Internet are enlarging the size of the informed electorate or edifying the body politic. This is not to deny that there the body of information available to the electorate via the nets has increased by an order of magnitude or two - but the content remains persuasive and biased rather than enlightening. We seem to be porting the same old tired political rhetoric from the placard, bumper sticker, poster, and sound bites over to today's Web billboards, political screen savers, and streaming video. The medium has changed, but not the nature and shallow content of the message.
Last time, I identified three potential problems with the use of the Web and Internet as a propaganda vehicle:
1. the proliferation of junk email
2. the automation of spin-doctoring
3. the elevation of the noise level in political discourse
listed from least to most threatening. One of the good things about digital politics in 2000 is that political junk mail seems from my vantage point less of a problem than I imagined. I take that as a positive sign. I have never registered my email address with any political organization, and have so far never received any information from them. It is worth noting in this regard that I'm generalizing from a sample size of one, so many of you may have very different experiences.
Automated spin doctoring, however, is taking place as I predicted. For example, click on the Bush site's "Action Items" pop-up window "Send a letter to your Editor" option (see Figure 3). Note the "canned" letter. Just imagine the absurdity of the op ed page of your newspaper filled with n tokens of this same letter, each bearing the name of a different author. This idea has to be targeted for a constituency of room-temperature IQs. Overcome by a willingness to make a positive contribution, I herewith propose the innovative concept of "political spin numerology (PSN)" whereby each editor assigns a unique code to each hyperlinked, canned letter - e.g., "Bushwhack 407b9," "Goreibund A9v" and build the running tallies into their op ed pieces. Imagine William Safire saying "... who among us would consider 419 "Bushwhack 64s" as compelling in the light of 300 "Goreibund 9s" against a backdrop of 100 solid "Hillary 36b7s."" The potential for rhetorical parsimony is truly inspiring.
Figure 3: An editor's nightmare: automated spin of the "canned feedback" ilk.
Although I am not willing to personally verify the presence of automated spin via "personalization" or "clustering" Web services, the CGI required is trivial once on has builds in a mechanism for clustering the subscribers (see Figure 4). I would be astounded if subscribers of the personalization services that appear on this year's political Websites didn't automatically trigger "boilerplate" email feeds via automatically-created distribution lists. This is a temptation which a politician would find incapable of resisting.
Figure 4: automated spin doctoring 2000 - boilerplate spam for every socio-economic group
As far as the noise level is concerned, events proceeded as predicted. Political rhetoric doesn't scale well, and more is almost never better. I illustrated this point with a challenge to bring to one's mind the most personally compelling political speeches. For most of us, we can count them on our fingers. That may be one of the reasons for negative political campaigns: it's easy to produce in large quantities - vs. the finely crafted, incontrovertible argument. All the available evidence suggests to me that electioneering on the Web in 2000 is even more mired in propagandizing than its 1996 progenitor.
THE CASE FOR OPTIMISM (REVISITED)
Four years ago, I held out the hope that "politicians will eventually come to understand that the potential of the Web resides in interactivity and in the possibility of greater individual participation in the political process." I gave a few examples of where digital politics could lead us.
First, it is possible, nay trivial, to digitize the political memory and achieve un-paralleled political accountability. Every vote, speech, press release, and source of campaign funds, could be cross-indexed by topic, theme, political bias, outcome, benefactor, constituency, source, and so forth. While I'm still optimistic, I must confess dismay at the snail-like pace with which we are proceeding.
First, the United States Government's contribution, Thomas (thomas.loc.gov), is a lesson in frustration. Although, raw-data sites of this sort should be maintained by the government, they are of little use to the electorate. Their value lies primarily in the fact that an industrious reporter can gather background data on Congressional activities without having to travel to the Library of Congress. However, for the hoi polloi interested in discovering revealing patterns, trends, and correlations, forget it. There is nothing in Thomas that will ratchet digital politics to the next level of scrutiny and awareness.
More revealing, though too-often biased and self-serving, are the private sites. These can range from the scandalous (e.g., Skeleton Closet - www.realchange.org) to the stately (e.g., Voter.Com - www.voter.com). In the long run, sites such as these will provide the long-term payoff, for it is there that the public will be made aware of the pork barrel projects, the log rolls, the paired voting habits, patronage appointments, and the entire cornucopia of political abuses of our fragile democracies. Of course, the open question is "where will the money come from to support these sites, and how much influence will the source of funding have on the objectivity of reporting?" While my hope that by now the Web and the Internet would a useful tool to the investigative reporter has been crushed, things are moving, however slowly, in the right direction. Based upon the present pace, I project a digitization of the political memory which is convenient and useful to the informed electorate sometime before the next millennium.
A second hopeful sign would be the animation of political communication, particularly through teleconferencing. I had in mind digital "town halls." In this area, we've made little progress beyond moderated chat groups - that stand to an engaging dialog as the National Explorer stands to profound journalism. On this front, we have no grounds for optimism to report.
Another opportunity is to use Internet and Web technology to add some participation into our participatory democracy. In order for this to happen, I envisioned bi-directional (rather than rectified) information flow between politician and constituent in the form of personalized email responses (vs. boilerplate and form letters), automated reviewing and follow-up of the way such communications were conducted, dynamic interaction between constituent and office staff, and so forth. I regret to report that I see politicians making no more effort to enfranchise constituents, encourage their participation in the political dialog, or act on their input than in 1996.
Finally, I suggested that the Internet and the Web offered us a fresh approach at the electoral process. "Friction-free" voting could have a major impact on both the nature of the political process and the outcome. Although limited experimentation has been conducted with digital voting (see special issue on Voting Technology in December, 1999 CACM), there is little positive to report at this writing. Most disappointing is the fact that there seems to be a lack of recognition that electronic voting, even if uncorruptable, is still not electronic democracy - and that the actual voting is but a small part of the democratic process.
As an aside, one of the new twists to digital politics which hadn't occurred to me in 1996 was the real-time polling. This has become quite the rage in 2000. Sites such as Portrait of America (www.portraitofamerica.com), Gallup Polls (www.gallup.com), and Zogby (www.zogby.com) provide a continuous stream of polling results to the ready consumer. Incidentally, as of late August the predicted outcomes of the U.S. Presidential elections look like this:
|Portrait of America
I predict that one of the two will win.
STILL NOT A PANACEA
I still stand by my concluding remarks in 1996:
"Of course the digitization of politics will not be a panacea. It will not just reduce or eliminate current political problems, it will also spawn new ones. This is the inevitable price we pay for technological advance. As the automobile contributed to the homogeneity of nations, it also facilitated the growth of the suburbs and the eventual decay of the inner cities. The great challenge before society is to ensure that the new problems are easier to deal with than the old.
Digital politics may also contribute to the balkanization of the electorate. The ease by means of which electronic communities may form would actually tend to encourage this since geographical constraints are absent in cyberspace. As these "digital enclaves" spawn, new strategies will have to be developed to nurture consensus.
It also remains to be seen whether, or to what extent, virtual communities will figure into digital politics. Our observations are neutral in this regard. We are looking at the digital politics through the lens of technological capability as it augments a traditional political process. There is another perspective which derives from the study of society and on-line social movements. Studies into the nature of on-line inter-personal and group relationships, and the degree to which these relationships are sustainable in cyberspace, are also relevant but beyond our ability to assess. For answers to these and other pressing problems we must ultimately turn to sociology and psychology."
I would only add, that I significantly underestimated the rest inertia of the political systems to embrace the new network technologies and experiment with innovative ways in which they can be used to improve the quality of the political process. I hope that I have more encouraging observations to share in 2004, but I'm not optimistic.