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Digital Democracy [/.]

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> X-within-URL: http://slashdot.org/features/98/12/18/1319204.shtml

>    Digital Democracy: An Idea Whose Time Has Come News Posted by JonKatz
>    on Friday December 18, @01:19PM
>    from the We-Really-Don't-Have-To-Take-It-Anymore dept.
>    As the Middle-Aged White Guys in Suits dig in in D.C. for what is
>    hopefully their last stand, the idea of Digital Democracy never looked
>    better. If it's a good idea (and it is) to empower individuals by
>    teaching them how to master their own technology via movements like OS
>    and free software, isn't it past time to use the technology of the Net
>    and the Web to reverse the flow of power, away from the entrenched and
>    increasingly lunatic journalists and politicians in Washington and
>    back to the individuals staring from a distance in shock and horror
>    and what they're seeing on their TV screens? Forget Wag the Dog.
>    Joseph Conrad, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppla (maybe Fellini, too)
>    have seized the capitol. Only we can't leave the theater.
>    Never mind the silly allusions to "Wag the Dog." Somehow, Joseph
>    Conrad, Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola (maybe Fellini, too) got
>    together to take over the government and play out their own visions of
>    our political life. The American capitol is now the Heart of Darkness,
>    fusing the darkest and most paranoid visions of "JFK" with the
>    spectacularly represented lunacy of "Apocalypse Now."
>    The movies have somehow become real life, but we can't leave the
>    theater and go home. The horror never ends. Whenever we turn on the
>    TV, they're all still there, shouting, posturing, spinning.
>    More and more, it seems clear that they're never going to go away.
>    Each one will have to be dragged out kicking and screaming, the last
>    zealot in Congress, the last self-righteous reporter, the last
>    screaming pundit on cable.
>    It's time to start thinking about Digital Democracy. We have to be
>    able to do better than them.
>    If the goals of OS and the free software movement are, in part, the
>    free and democratic sharing of technology, why not stretch the notion
>    farther and put it into the context of our increasingly surreal, even
>    mad, political times?
>    The natural extension of the booming OS and free software movements
>    are into politics and democracy, especially the radical new ways in
>    which digital democracy could once again empower individuals instead
>    of politicians and journalists, and reform the obviously broken and
>    outdated way in which we resolve political issues.
>    America was founded as a Republic, not really as a representative
>    democracy. For one thing, Americans were scattered far from one
>    another and couldn't make their feelings known quickly. So elected
>    representatives were elected to gather and make decisions on their
>    behalf.
>    The authors of the Constitution didn't have all that much regard for
>    the judgements of the average citizen, any more than their successors
>    seem to. The structure was tilted towards a deliberative, rather than
>    simply representative system so that educated and affluent landowners
>    could screen the passions of the rabble and have the final say.
>    The early pundits and cyber-gurus of the Internet's first generation
>    spouted on quite a bit about the impact of networked computing on
>    democratic institutions like Congress and journalism. These
>    institutions, they predicted, would increasingly become ineffective
>    and irrelevant, swept away by the power of digital technology to
>    reverse the flow of power.
>    This cyber-rhetoric seemed - was - heavy-handed, Utopian and
>    overblown. It evoked the table-thumping Marxists more than the
>    architects of a new, civil order. But this week, it looks more better
>    by the hour.
>    If you take the OS idea and daydream about it for a bit - millions of
>    individuals taking control of their own technology and shaping the
>    information they access and share, doesn't this idea have even greater
>    application for politics? And could it possibly be more timely? If
>    would could express ourselves politically - and have our expressions
>    count - isn't it at least conceivable that the U.S. Congress might be
>    talking about something that matters today, and for the last year?
>    Digital democracy is no longer a pipedream, not in the year of the
>    online dumping of the Starr report and the impeachment proceedings.
>    It's no longer difficult to imagine every American having a computer
>    in the next few years, or having easy access to one in schools,
>    libraries and public buildings. People could vote online now as easily
>    as they vote by ballot or booth - more easily really. Each citizen
>    could be assigned a digital voting number and use it to vote from home
>    or the school or library down the road, where computers already exist
>    or could easily be set up. Fraud would be easier to spot and guard
>    against, thanks to advances in both encryption and programming. And
>    this wouldn't even raise fresh privacy issues, as voters have to
>    register now.
>    This week, the country is confronted with the bizarre spectacle of a
>    runaway political entity - Republicans in the House of Representatives
>    - deciding, correctly or not, that no interest is more important than
>    impeaching President Clinton - not public sentiment, military action,
>    education, health care, the economy or any other civic or social
>    agenda. Even if they're right, lots of people are uneasy about this
>    willful disregard of public will. Most Americans don't want this to be
>    happening, and have said so for months. The politicians have said that
>    it doesn't really matter, the next election is two years away. By
>    then, nobody will remember this strange time. That's a good argument
>    for some form of Digital Democracy.
>    Digital voting made possible by the Internet would make a spectacle
>    like the impeachment proceedings impossible. Everything shouldn't
>    necessarily be subject to popular vote, but the impeachment of the
>    President should be, and the Net and the Web could make it possible
>    even now.
>    Watching music lovers challenge the primacy of the music industry
>    through digital technology like MP3's and the Rio raises the question
>    of whether we really need a middleman institution like Congress to
>    decide issues like this for us. After the year long Lewinsky/Clinton
>    media barrage and the dumping of reams of material, pornographic and
>    otherwise on the Internet, we know as much about the charges against
>    the President as they do. We are able and equipped to make up our own
>    minds and express our own wishes. And perhaps even see our wishes
>    carried out.
>    Do we need to be bound to completely by their agenda, when we can now
>    set our own?
>    Unlike Colonial Americans, we aren't disconnected and remote. We can
>    make our feelings known instantly. We have the technology to gather in
>    communities and clusters to debate and consider as much or more
>    information as members of Congress.
>    Many politicians and journalists have feared, even loathed, the
>    Internet, since its inception. Increasingly, it becomes clear why. It
>    really does threaten them. It really does provide the means to take
>    power away from them - and their co-produced spectacles like
>    impeachment proceedings and presidential nominating processes - and
>    distribute it more broadly. This week marks the perfect time to begin
>    consider the possibilities of Digital Democracy. To broaden the notion
>    of empowering individuals begin by the designers of the Internet,
>    advanced by hackers, geeks, nerds, developers and designers and being
>    played out on sites like this one today. From the moment the Internet
>    began to grow, power and information began to leach away from
>    entrenched institutions like government, the press and academe and
>    towards hundreds of thousands, then millions of individual citizens.
>    The impeachment proceedings are a powerful argument for the idea that
>    it's time to take that idea farther.
>    Digital technology doesn't mean that democratic decisions would have
>    to be rushed or impulsive. They could be as deliberative as we wished.
>    Digital voting could be spread over time, perhaps requiring several
>    votes. A broad range of issues and decisions - appointments, foreign
>    policy decisions, criminal matters - would be inappropriate for online
>    voting.
>    But the Net is becoming a medium already well set-up for civic
>    discussions. The Internet could host hundreds, even thousands of
>    public online forums for debate and discussion - via message boards,
>    chat rooms and websites that could be designed for towns, counties,
>    states or regions. Politicians, agencies and advocates could
>    disseminate information and arguments via national websites, mailing
>    lists and e-mail.
>    These forums would have to consider new kinds of rules for debate and
>    discussion, an online issue long in need of attention. Posters would
>    have to identify themselves and take responsibility for their words.
>    Discussion would center on issues, not personalities. Presidents and
>    legislators could bring information and decisions directly to the
>    American public. If the Starr report was worthy of being dumped on
>    line, why not the House Judiciary report on impeachment? Voters could
>    read it online, debate it, decide to pass it along for further action
>    or stop the process right there.
>    If digital democracy were in place, this issue would have been
>    resolved nearly a year ago. Tens of millions of dollars would have
>    been better spent. Many more important issues would have considered,
>    accepted and rejected. Clinton would either be doing his job or long
>    gone. Instead of feeling cheated and ignored, the public would feel
>    enfranchised and involved. Democracy wouldn't be a remote circus
>    practiced far away by alien cultures, but something as close as a desk
>    or living room.
>    We are no longer a country of merchants and mostly illiterate farmers.
>    Paine and Jefferson, the fathers of media, couldn't quite have
>    imagined the Internet, but there seems little doubt that they have
>    loved its communicative and democratic possibilities. Those of us with
>    access to computers and modems have access to all of the information
>    and opinions in the world, thus the means to consider issues and
>    express ourselves. In fact, there are thousands of people who've been
>    online for years and who are experienced at creating digital
>    communities, monitoring conversations and developing the software and
>    hardware to run them efficiently and accurately.
>    No system involving Digital Democracy could work or even be seriously
>    considered until and unless all Americans were guaranteed access to
>    computers. A few years ago, online users were a tiny, techno-elite.
>    That's no longer true. Computers are increasingly ubiquitous, at
>    schools, businesses, and at home. Personal computers are already being
>    mass-marketed that cost well below $1,000, and public agencies like
>    schools, libraries and municipal office buildings are increasingly
>    wired. They could offer online voting to non-computer users in much
>    the way they offer voting booths and make them available. Many more
>    Americans own computers than voting booths.


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