Second Sight

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 21 March 2001

In the beginning, it seemed that the decision to grant the public open access to the internet would herald a new era of teledemocracy, political activism and a reinstatement of the collective will in public affairs.

The emergence of a networked culture, accompanied by an ethic of media literacy, open discussion and direct action, held the promise of a more responsive political system wherever it spread.

But the most publicised effort at teledemocracy so far, former Clinton pollster Dick Morris’s web site,, is a homage to the public opinion poll. Billing itself as the next phase in a truly populist and articulated body politic, the site amounts to little more than an opportunity for politicians to glean the gist of a few more uninformed, knee-jerk reactions to the issue of the day., as the name suggests, reduces representative democracy to just another marketing survey. Even if it’s just the framework for a much more substantial future version, it’s based on a fundamentally flawed vision of push-button politics. And it’s the vision shared by most teledemocracy champions today.

So what went wrong? Why doesn’t networked politics lead to a genuinely networked engagement in public affairs? First, by casting itself in the role of cultural and institutional watchdog, the govern ment, particularly in the United States, became internet society’s enemy. Though built with mostly government dollars, the internet’s growth into a public medium seemed to be impeded by the government’s own systemic aversion to the kinds of information, images and ideas that the network spread.

The government’s fear of hackers was compounded by a fear of pornography and the fear of terrorism. The result was a tirade of ill-conceived legislation that made internet enthusiasts’ blood boil. New “decency” laws aimed at curbing pornography (which were ultimately struck down) elicited cries of curtailment on free speech. Unsubstantiated and bungled raids on young hackers and their families turned law enforcement into the Keystone Cops of cyberspace - and the US justice department into a sworn enemy of the shareware community’s most valuable members. Misguided (and unsuccessful) efforts at preventing the dissemination of cryptography protocols across national boundaries turned corporate developers into government-haters, as well.

So, the government became known as the antagonist of cyberculture. Every effort was made to diminish state control over the global telecommunications infrastructure, and the internet itself - a government project - soon fell into private hands. For just as a bacteria tends to grow unabated without the presence of fungus, so too does corporate power grow without the restrictive influence of government.

This, in itself, may not have been so terrible. E-commerce certainly has its strengths, and the economic development associated with a profit-driven internet creates new reasons for new countries to get their populations online. But an interactive market place is not fertile soil for networked democracy or public participation. The objective of marketers is to reduce interactivity, shorten consideration and induce impulsive purchases.

That’s why the software and interfaces developed for the commercial webspace tended to take user’s hands off the keyboard and onto the mouse. The most successful programs, in this regard, lead people to “buy” button, and let them use the keyboard only to enter their credit card numbers and nothing else.

The internet that grew from these development priorities, dominated by the world wide web instead of discussion groups, treats individuals more as con sumers than as citizens. True, consumers can vote with their dollars - and in a way that feels something like direct communication with the entity in charge, the corporation. But this is not a good model for government.

Sadly, though, it’s the model being used to implement these first efforts at teledemocracy. And it’s why these efforts suffer from the worst symptoms of consumer culture: they focus on short-term ideals, they encourage impulsive, image-driven decision-making, and they aim to convince people that their mouse-clicking is some kind of direct action. And anyone arguing against such schemes must be an enemy of the public will - an elitist.

Teledemocracy is a populist revival, after all, isn’t it? Perhaps. But the system of representation on which most democracies were built was intended to buffer the effects of such populist revivals. Although they may not always (or even frequently) live up to it, our representatives’ role is to think beyond the short-term interests of the majority. They are elected to protect the rights of minority interests - the sorts of people and groups who are now increasingly cast as “special interest groups”.

The true promise of a network-enhanced democracy lies not in some form of web-driven political marketing survey, but in restoring and encouraging broader participation in some of the internet’s more interactive forums.

Activists of all stripes should have the freedom and facility to network and organise across vast geographical, national, racial, and even ideological differences.

For a politician who means to lead more effectively, the interactive solution may well be a new emphasis on education, where an elected leader uses the internet to engage with constituents and justify the decisions he or she has made on their behalf, rather than simply soliciting their moment-to-moment opinions.

And, most importantly, before declaring that the internet can access the will of the majority, get a majority of people access to the internet.