Masthead CMC Magazine / April 1, 1996
SPECIAL FOCUS: GOVERNMENT AND DEMOCRACY ONLINE

Waiting for Democracy in Cyberspace

by Amelia DeLoach

The idea of running an issue on government and democracy first came about last November when I sent out a questionnaire to all U.S. Congresspersons with email addresses. The immediate results of this effort were automatically generated messages informing me that I would receive a response via snail mail if I had included my street address and was a constituent. Suddenly, "government online" took on an oxymoronic meaning--especially when over 40 of almost 240 responses were identical, including the one from ^Newt Gingrich.

It quickly became apparent that when it comes to the Internet, the U.S. government simply reflects society at large with its fear and confusion over the technology and its potential impact. The U.S. government, however, is hardly alone. In his essay, []The Status of the Information Society, Michel Bauwens explores the misunderstanding and fear of the Internet that many hierarchical organizations share and the potential democratizing effect the medium may have if not corrupted.

The idea that the Internet can enhance democracy doesn't solely exist in the theoretical arena. Scott Aikens and Erna Koch provide a case study of the Minnesota E-Democracy Project in []Building Democracy Online. They maintain that the Internet can further democratize the election process because it forces a more issue-based look at candidates' views, thus making them more accountable for their actions.

United States Congressional Representative Vernon Ehlers (Republican-Michigan) also sees the Internet as a means to increase political accountability. Ehlers is spearheading the effort to revamp the House's computer system. In his interview with CMC Magazine, []New Congressional Network Coming, he explains that the Internet will allow the average voter to have the same information as the most powerful Washington, D.C. lobbyists. But for government to use the medium to its fullest, every Congressperson must first go online.

In []The Senate's New Online Majority, Part II, Chris Casey explains that, at least in the Senate, ubiquitous email usage is in sight. But just how government offices will handle email is still uncertain, as I discovered when researching []Email Goes to Washington. As one staffer explained, many offices don't want to use email to respond to email messages since it encourages "a chat," which most offices don't have the personnel to effectively sustain.

Don Langham takes a pragmatic view of what improvements need to be made for the Internet to become medium that will benefit us in []A Map for the Civic-Minded, his review of Steve Miller's book Civilizing Cyberspace.

From the empirical to the theoretical views presented in this issue, one theme becomes very clear. The Internet can enhance democracy, but only if voters and government officials overcome their fear of the medium and experienced online users patiently allow novices to learn the ways of the Net. [TOC]

Amelia DeLoach, (amelia@albany.net) is the editor of this special focus issue of CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1996 by Amelia DeLoach. All Rights Reserved.

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