Book on use of electronic networks for democracy [cr-95/10/25]


(Forwarded from the telecomreg mailing list--Andy.)

I wrote the following brief review to be submitted to a daily here in
Seattle.  Unfortunately, the book was not as new as I had thought (it
was released in August).  Perhaps it may be of value to someone here....

Brennon M. Martin
School of Communications, Box 353740
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-3740


        In recent years, there has been a movement to limit the powers of
government and our elected representatives. An increase in the use of
public referendums and other initiatives on the ballot (such as the recent
failed attempts to fund the Seattle Commons and a new baseball stadium for
the Mariners) are indicative of the desire to put power back in the hands
of the people.  Attempts at instituting term limits for members of
Congress are part of the same trend.

        At the same time, political participation, measured in terms of
how many people vote in an election, has been on the decline for years
with the one exception being the latest presidential election in 1992.

        In _The Electronic Republic_, published by Twentieth Century Fund,
Lawrence K. Grossman examines the phenomenon that is transforming the
representative system created by our Founding Fathers to a direct
democracy in which laws are enacted by the people the mselves.  Grossman
points out that direct democracy was not what the framers of the
Constitution had in mind.  They envisioned a system where public opinion
would not be transformed from a raw state into public policy.

        Grossman writes, "Nevertheless, however carefully the new
government was to withhold power, insulate the country against the
people's 'temporary delusion,' and provide the 'opportunity for more cool
and sedate reflection,' American representative democra cy was firmly
rooted in the principle that human beings in general 'possessed the
inherent capacity to govern themselves.'"

        The recent explosion in computer and information technology has
led some people to hail these innovations as the path to a more
participative system through electronic town meetings, computerized
ballots, and on-line question and answer sessions with can didates and
representatives.  It is now possible to take a virtual tour of the White
House, email your representative in Congress, or look up the exact wording
of a bill all from the comfort of your den.

        _The Electronic Republic_ offers suggestions for what policy might
be implemented to allow us to improve the representative system that the
Founders intended without suffering from the dangers of "mobacracy," the
sort of push-button, whim-driven, public-opinion government that the
Constitution was to prevent.  The question that Grossman takes on is how
might new communications technologies be implemented to increase the sort
of grassroots participation that most Americans say they want without
throwing out the process of deliberation and debate that has worked so far.

        Where Grossman's book differs from other publications in this
field is that it neither embraces new technologies as the ultimate
solution nor discounts them as useless toys that are only good for wasting
time.  Where others have often taken the extreme v iews, Grossman has
moderated his obvious enthusiasm with the proper skepticism.  The most
impressive aspect of the book is that it considers the problem of
discovering all that it will take to improve our system.  There is no one
answer, no one solution.  Improving our system will only come about
through a combination of factors.  If you want a list of possibilities to
consider, read _The Electronic Republic_.

 Posted by Andrew Oram  - •••@••.••• - Moderator: CYBER-RIGHTS (CPSR)
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