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Fineman, Howard. Who needs Washington?(politics in the 21st
century)(America 2000)(Brief Article). In Newsweek Jan 27 1997,
v129, n4, p50(3).
The Web will produce an explosion of microdemocracy. It may give us a
new sense of connection--but it will also be mean, messy and
LOOKING BACK, IT'S CLEAR THAT THE DEFINING election of the digital
age was in the year 2004, and that the candidate who embodied the new
era wasn't the winner (Republican John Kasich, who edged out Democrat
Evan Bayh), but the man who finished third: Woody Harrelson, of the
McLuhan/Reform Party. Harrelson's campaign, managed by Oliver Stone,
mixed message and medium in a yawp of digital hyperpopulism. The
platform was William Jennings Bryan: attacking the modern robber
barons on behalf of the Great Plains of cyberspace. Harrelson
demanded free-access vouchers for all students and unemployed, a
pro-encryption amendment to the Constitution, the breakup of
Microsoft and Netscape, and abolition of the federal income tax.
Washington, D.C., he said, was an irrelevant relic, the "last refuge
of the old carbon-based politics" in a world of bit-streamed data
moving at the speed of light. "Let Washington tend to the atoms of
aging baby boomers," he declared, "while we aim our browsers at bits
of the future."
But it was the way Harrelson campaigned that almost won him the
election--and that set the pattern others since have followed. His
rivals had size on their side. Vice President Bayh had the full
backing of AT&T, Netscape and ABC/Disney; GOP House Speaker Kasich
had MCI and NBC/Microsoft. But these mainframe candidates were mired
in old-think. They produced "spots" for analog-style TV networks and
insisted on a series of "debates." Harrelson would have none of it.
Powered by huge servers and the latest in artificial intelligence,
Harrelson's "Let's Lead Ourselves" channels featured his interactive
3-D image in a variety of settings (Iowa coffee klatch, campaign
plane, TV studio), with each server capable of conducting
simultaneous, real-time, discrete conversations with 50,000 voters on
topics ranging from animal rights to zinc pollution. It was like a
"fireside chat" with FDR actually sitting in each voter's living
room. The AI 'bot was designed to sense the voter's opinion so that
"Woody" could agree wholeheartedly--or disagree vehemently (or sadly)
would be more impressive. Data from all sessions were fed instantly
into the Harrelson campaign's computer, so that he could update his
stands on the issues (and his on-screen attire) accordingly. In all,
the site got 200 million hits. Of those who visited it more than five
times--20 million souls--every single one voted for Woody. And why
not? After all, they had made him what he was.
Go ahead, snicker, laugh--or cry. But it's true: each new wave in the
technology of communications tosses up leaders who ride the medium,
understand the issues it generates and embody the new Zeitgeist it
creates. Just take a look at the historical spreadsheet: Washington
and Jefferson in the epistolary age of parchment and cheap pamphlets;
Lincoln, brilliant wordsmith of public speeches, in the time of
telegraphy; Teddy Roosevelt, who invented the political publicity
stunt to occupy the metropolitan tabloids; FDR and radio; Kennedy,
Reagan and TV. Now what? The president as Webmaster-in-chief? As
hologram? We are racing toward a time in which there will be
unlimited channels of fully digital, interactive virtual reality
transmitting data, entertainment and news.
What kind of politics will this produce? What kind of leadership--if
any? What role will federal Washington play--if any? You could see
the new-world chrysalis in, of all places, the Dole campaign of 1996.
Dole himself was born in Kansas when commercial radio was in its
infancy, yet he was the first presidential candidate to announce his
Web-site address on national TV. He already knew the stuff could
work. He happened to have as his top Webmaster one Andrew Weinstein,
a savvy young Dukie who had put up an alluring, highly interactive
site in the primary season. The result: a bumper crop of l2,000 good
volunteers who worked key "early" states and helped save the Dole
candidacy. By summer, the Dole campaign was regularly e-mailing
messages to these fans, each message customized to specific topics
the voters said they cared about. The entire effort cost less than an
average TV advertising "buy" in a major market.
This was digital grass-roots activism in action. Such visionaries as
newsletter guru Esther Dyson think the Web will produce an explosion
of microdemocracy. She's right. The Web already has become the
walkie-talkie and bulletin board for a new generation of organizers,
from the National Rifle Association to the Electronie Freedom
Foundation. Access to political information is being radically
democratized. Voters can research--instantly--the record of any
candidate on any issue. "The voters can really drill down," says
Evans Witt, executive editor of the popular PoliticsNow Web page.
Anything that restores a sense of connection is all to the good, Witt
says. "Given the cynicism about politics, anything helps." If
information is power, Washington is Rome with the file drawers
locked. It took a vast bureaucracy to fill them and do the city's
business. Now voternetheads have the capability--and should,
logically, have the right--to do the work themselves. Washington
still dictates the trajectory of missiles and the creation of money.
But it rules little else, and the action is elsewhere: in the
financial trading rooms of the world, in Silicon Valley software
shops, in the antiseptic corridors of Seattle. Cyberspace is the new
Louisiana Purchase, an uncharted West. It's creating its own issues,
and forcing them onto the agenda of the establishment back "East."
Instead of free silver, it's free speech and free Web access. If
Thomas Jefferson were alive, he'd be spending his time at the MIT
media lab and communicating with Meriwether Lewis by laptop. If
America has been defined and refreshed by its ever-westering spirit,
perhaps the digital age has arrived just in time.
But digital democracy will also be mean, messy and dangerous: a
shrapnel-filled grenade clattering across the marble floor of
consensus. What the musty academies call "mediating
institutions"--from party conventions to network news--have been
declining for a host of reasons. The digital future could kill them
off entirely. In the digital world, every unchecked "fact" is all too
available, every opinion equal. The nifty Web page of the
Holocaust-denier can seem just as convincing as the rerun of
"Schindler's List." "Now you can immediately link the obsessions of a
few like-minded folks in Tampa, Wichita and Montana," says Doug
Bailey, the pioneering founder of the Political Hotline. "When you
can do that, you're talking about the fragmentation of politics." And
soon enough, the historical echoes of the Web will not he so bracing.
Instead of recalling Lewis and Clark and the pristine rivers of the
West, the relevant parallel may be Carnegie and Morgan and the
monopolistic power they represented. The tycoons of the digital age,
like their steel and railroad predecessors, are amassing
incomprehensible fortunes and unaccountable power. It's easy to see
Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch as the fat-bottomed "trusts" in an old
Thomas Nast cartoon. But who will play Bryan or Teddy Roosevelt? And
how can they do it if federal power is dismantled by the digerati?
Neither Bill Clinton nor A1 Gore is a true Son of Cyberspace. The
president is resolutely carbon-based. He confides to friends that he
has no keyboarding skills (can't type) and has never surfed the Web
of his own free will. This from a man who claimed in 1996 that wiring
schools for the benefits of the Internet was one of his top
priorities. Gore is a half-breed. He's an obsessive e-mailer who uses
his laptop wherever he goes. Gore is known to dutifully fill out
electronic registration cards for new software. (Name: Albert Gore.
Occupation: vice president.) "I couldn't believe it when I saw him
showing up on our list," one executive said. But Gore is not beloved
by new-world pioneers. The administration committed a mortal sin,
they believe, when Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act of
1996, regarded on the Web as a blunt attack on free speech. Gore
didn't protest publicly, they note, and should have known better.
The ultimate threats to American democracy in the digital age aren't
the rise of splinter groups, or new tycoons, or government-imposed
limits on speech. The dangers are more subtle and insidious. One is
the lack of a common starting point for discussion. Soon enough,
philosophers of cyberspace point out, you'll not only be able to
"research" another point of view; you'll literally be able to inhabit
it. If anyone can see the world from any angle--if everything is
relative and the dominant reality virtual--where's the place called
America? "It's a principle from optics," said John Pavlik, who heads
Columbia University's New Media program. "If you don't have a 'known'
perspective, you can't judge anything." The other danger is that
leadership as we knew it--from George Washington to Ronald
Reagan--will disappear as politicians become all too connected to the
voters. You don't have to be Edmund Burke to see the danger: imagine
poll taker Dick Morris as a server and Clinton as the interactive
software. What if our presidents become nothing more than the sum of
our whims and misinformation? The netizens of the future will have to
take their jobs seriously. Are we ready for this much democracy?
Let's hope so.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Newsweek Inc.