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Author: Richard Barbrook


An Analysis of On-Line Representation

The Limits of Representation

At the end of the twentieth century, the advocates of liberal democracy are faced with a strange paradox. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, its ideological ascendancy across the world has never been more complete. Yet, at the same time, voters within the industrialised countries are increasingly disillusioned with the political process. Tarnished by broken promises and widespread sleaze, the present British Conservative government is held in contempt even by its erstwhile supporters. In the recent French presidential elections, the eventual winner – Jacques Chirac – was the first choice of only a fifth of the electorate. In the USA, the situation is even worse. In successive elections, a majority of Americans haven’t bothered to vote at all.

The Technological Fix

As the alienation of voters increases, technology is increasingly been touted as a magical cure for this pressing political problem. Mesmerised by the rapid convergence of telecommunications, the media and computing, many people now believe that the ‘information superhighway’ will create the conditions for the direct participation of all citizens in political decision-making. (For instance, see the writings of Howard Rheingold). Back in the ’60s, this technological utopia was first propounded by the Situationists and other New Left groups. Rejecting distrusted party politicians, these young revolutionaries wanted people to run their own lives through a hi-tech form of direct democracy – the electronic agora. Inspired by this vision, activists across the world set up a wide variety of radical media from pirate radio stations to hackers’ bulletin boards. (See my article on Media Freedom).

In a bizarre twist, this left-wing anarchism is now being echoed by free-market zealots within the American Republican party. Newt Gingrich – the Speaker of the House of Representatives – believes that the Internet will create ‘electronic town halls’ where voters can directly participate within the political process. Fearful of big government, American conservatives hope that information technologies will allow them to return to the simple days of the early Republic when hard-working white folk solved their own problems through public meetings rather than relied upon the impersonal aid of the welfare state. (See the publications of the Progress and Freedom Foundation).

Whether from left or right, these techno-utopians hope that the gulf between the electorate and their representatives can be overcome by connecting them together electronically – or by bypassing the politicians altogether. However, up to now, the reality of electronic democracy has been rather more prosaic. Soon after he was elected, President Bill Clinton set up a Web site for the White House where government documents can be downloaded and e-mail can be sent. Following this precedent, other American politicians and foreign governments have also established their own Web sites to promote their views. Some politicians have even taken part in discussions within newsgroups or in on-line conference. Yet, in reality, these experiments have not lived up to the hype of the utopians. Tapping furiously on a keyboard to your M.P. can’t suddenly overcome decades of cynicism about the political process. More seriously, the membership of this embryonic electronic agora has so far been limited to a privileged minority of engineers, academics and professionals who have access to the Net.

Yet, even when the whole population is eventually wired up, the utopia of direct democracy will still face the most important obstacle of all: the problem of how large numbers of people can make communicate and take decisions together. However good it is, a new technology cannot solve fundamental social and political problems by itself. Back in the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau – the Enlightenment philosopher – believed that democracy could only be created through a public meeting of all citizens – as happened in Swiss villages or New England towns of the period. However, with the emergence of modern nation states, it was no longer possible for every citizen to meet in one place at the same time. Even if the electronic agora eliminates the physical limitations on citizens gathering together in one place by creating virtual spaces, it cannot remove the entirely social problem of how large groups of people can successfully interact with one another. As shown by existing Net conferencing programs, it becomes very difficult to hold a meaningful conversation if everyone is talking at once. Unless an electronic agora only consists of a small number of people, some form of representation will have to be used to mediate between the different social, cultural and geographical groups wishing to shape political decision-making. Despite the dreams of the techno-anarchists, wiring up the country wouldn’t get rid of the need for professional politicians.

What Can Be Done

Yet, despite its limitations, the Net can still improve the dissemination of political information and improve the accountability of elected representatives. For example, the Zapatista rebels in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico have been using Web sites and newsgroups to call for support for their struggle for land reform. Jose Angel Gurria – Mexico’s Foreign Minister – recently acknowledged that the government had been forced into half-hearted negotiations with the insurgents only because of the power of local and global public opinion mobilised by the Net. It is becoming much more difficult for those in authority to look the other way when news reports made by those people suffering from economic exploitation and corrupt officials are being sent directly into the homes of their electorates.

Despite not realising the direct democracy dreamed of by left or right-wing anarchists, this more limited version of the electronic agora will play a key role in revitalising our democratic institutions. As the Demos think-tank has recently pointed out, electronic democracy will only be useful as one part of an overall modernisation of the political process – along with electoral reforms, protection of civil liberties, curbs on corruption and an end to official secrecy. Technology cannot cure political or social problems by itself, but it can be used to reinforce human solutions. Back in the late-eighteenth century, republican philosophers called for the creation of an informed citizenry who would possess the knowledge needed to make those political decisions affecting their own lives. Maybe, as we enter the twenty-first century, the Net will help to realise this democratic ideal for the first time.

A shortened version of this article appeared in New Scientist, 29 July 1995.

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.