A century and a half ago, the visiting French critic Alexis de Tocqueville described a politically exuberant United States whose citizens didn?t let booming technologies like the steam engine distract them from enthusiastic personal involvement in public affairs and community life.
"If an American were condemned to confine his activity to his own affairs, he would be robbed of one half of his existence; he would feel an immense void in the life which he is accustomed to lead, and his wretchedness would be unbearable," de Tocqueville observed.
That description sounds more than 150 years out of date. As was apparent last week, politics is increasingly wretched and unbearable -- an arcane, irrelevant exercise carried out by media, political, lobbying and special interest groups in Washington. Individual citizens grow more apathetic all the time when it comes to civics and government, while politicians and their parties compete furiously to see who can do less and spend less. The average citizen has almost nothing to do with this process, so understandably pays less and less attention to it all the time.
It's impossible to draw even a bare majority of eligible voters to participate in a presidential election any longer, or to blame them for ignoring it. What rational person could be expected to pay attention to these pre-installed nominees, programmed mediafests and infomercials that masquerade as democratic gatherings? Last week, a Democratic party official on CNN announced with a straight face that his party's L.A. convention was "interactive" because webcams were running live in the make-up rooms where speakers checked their pancake before delivering their exhortations. And there seemed to be as many Apple logos as American flags on display in L.A., as the party was desperate to appear forward looking and original. The iMacs didn't work.
Political conventions may make journalists feel important and allow exhausted politicians to appear democratic, but fewer citizens get fooled each time around. By now, only a fraction of the public is paying attention at all.
New technologies like the Net have always held great promise for re-connecting citizens to the political process, and re-democratizing democracy. Some of the early Net pioneers and cyber-gurus believed they were creating a political, not a commercial or technological revolution, when they designed the Net.
But those fantasies have not materialized. In fact, many social critics blame technology for this. The idea that technology isolates and alienates people is widely held to be the reason for America's growing political apathy and disconnection, even though there's little evidence or logic to support that argument. Richard Sclove, an author and director of the Public Interest Technology Policy Project, argues that new technologies promise convenience, productivity and economic growth, but deliver disturbing hidden costs: deepening inequality, social alienation, community dissolution and political disempowerment.
"Contemporary technologies contribute indirectly to diverse social ills," he writes in a collection of essays called Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information. In particular, he argues, they conspire in subtle ways to significantly hinder participatory decision-making.
That idea is widely held by critics and members of the so-called intelligentsia, even though it's rarely explained and dubiously supported.
It's hard to see why technology -- rather than elitist, unresponsive political parties, government agencies and media institutions -- deserves the blame for political alienation. Online, technology has given new energy to the idea of free speech, fostered individual participation in discussions, created new kinds of vigorous communities with shared interests, and encouraged the spread of diverse opinions.
Still, Sclove argues that alternative technological strategies and designs might help sustain democratic community, civic engagement, and social justice. He agrees that the point isn?t to reject technology outright (is that even an option any more?) but to become more discriminating in how we design and use it. He suggests, for example, "barrier-free" designs for the Internet in much the same way "barrier-free" equipment and public spaces have been created for the disabled. Politically, the goal would be universal access to information, discussion and voting. Instead of being heard mostly through opinion polls -- perhaps the primary force behind contemporary politics and political journalism -- the people could simply speak and vote for themselves, using computing and the Net.
Sclove writes that if women were more actively involved in technological design, for example, they might promote more shared neighborhood facilities such as day care and laundries, or closer location of homes, workplaces and commercial facilities. (For that matter, men might want the same thing). This smaller scale use of technology and politics could work. A block or neighborhood chat room might work well to sort out community issues, even if most threaded discussions and chat rooms online are a nightmare of hostility and confusion. If you're chatting with your neighbor about draining problems, you're more likely to be civil and coherent.
Still, good luck. If technology itself isn't out of control, the people who design it and decide how we use it are. Human gene maps get rushed to completion so that bio-tech corporations can mass-market perfect humans, while some of the country?s best scientific minds are holed up in think tanks creating gizmos that allow us to get sports scores in our cars.
Technology that supports democracy and civic engagement? Nobody wants to pay to develop that at the moment, nor is there much evidence that anybody wants to buy it. Politics has an increasingly bad (and richly-deserved) rep and most research and development people in the tech world don't want to go anywhere near it.
Sclove's solution is to "open, democratize, and partly decentralize pertinent government agencies, create avenues for worker and community involvement in corporate R&D and strategic planning, and generally strengthen societal capabilities to monitor and, as needed, guide technologies' cumulative political and social consequences."
It's a fine, even noble idea. America's technology elite is particularly contemptuous of people it perceives as "clueless," (aka technologically inept). This increasingly powerful elite seems to lose touch with the non-tech world more with each passing day.
So using technology to revitalize democracy is a powerful idea, especially when the elephants and the donkeys are demonstrating once more just how dramatically the political process has changed since de Tocqueville dropped by.
Technology could surely make voting easier and more appetizing to citizens who could vote from their home or work computers. It could indeed encourage grass-roots decision making. We could start small. The Net, for example, could be deployed for communal discussions of manageable local issues -- crime, vandalism, barking dogs or trash pick-up. Citizens could use technology to get information about local budgets or follow legislation. They would have an easier way to communicate with lawmakers and officials. Moderated discussions could precede electronic voting, which could bring majority rule more directly to bear on stalemated issues, from the local school budget to town highway repairs. On a grander scale, such discussions might eventually foster progress and models for resolving intractable national issues like the environment, school vouchers, abortion and gun control, many of which rarely come directly to voters for resolution but get eternally debated by special interests, lobbyists, and politicians.
Is any of this likely? Probably not for a few years. The people who have been meeting in Philadelphia and Los Angeles show no signs of wanting to share the process with citizens, however they pretend to. But interactivity has brought a sense of empowerment to all sorts of groups, from computer geeks to online shoppers and music lovers to people seeking legal and medical information. Sooner or later, institutions like politics will get hit just as hard as the music industry.