Electronic Democracy Toolkit

By Howard Rheingold

Excerpted from The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog:

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." -- James Madison

Skillfully used, new communication media can amplify the power of grassroots groups to gather critical information, organize political action, sway public opinion and guide policy-making. You can learn about the tools themselves, from modems to BBS software, in Communications (pp 242-81). On the following pages, you can learn how to use these communications devices as political tools.

Most processes for guiding public policy or influencing electoral politics involve communication -- meeting people, developing ideas and arguments, persuading people to adopt your views, enlisting support, negotiating compromises, organizing actions. Each of these spheres of action can be enhanced through the right kind of use of computer-mediated communications. Here are a few examples:

When the Colorado Springs, Colorado, city council proposed a law that would effectively prohibit telecommuting, Dave Hughes, a retired West Point instructor and combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam, made his first foray into electronic democracy.

"I was the only person to stand up in front of the planning commission and testify against the ordinance; the planners tabled the matter for thirty days. I brought the text of the ordinance home with me and put it on my computer bulletin board system," Hughes recalls. Hughes sent letters to two local papers, inviting people to dial into his BBS and read the ordinance. At the next city council meeting, more than 175 citizens showed up to protest the ordinance. It was defeated. Hughes points out that "Ordinarily, the effort needed to get involved with local politics is enormous. But the economy of effort that computers provided made it possible for me to mobilize opinion and action."

Ask Jim Warren what a computer database has to do with electoral politics, and he'll look at you like you just asked him why an aquarium needs water. A computer programmer and one of the original advocates of "computers for people," Warren volunteered to help a candidate in a local Congressional race because he was outraged at the tactics of an incumbent. When Warren volunteered his services to the challenger, he realized that the political organization could gain a bonanza because he knew how to use publicly accessible computer data. Knowing exactly where your candidate's supporters are located, how they responded to recent communications from your campaign office, and how to contact them in geographic order, is information with high value on election day.(See "See "How to Use GIS in Electoral Campaigns," p. 293)

Environmental activists (see Eco-Activism, p 109) have demonstrated that it is possible to build global networks even if you don't have the financial resources of a multinational corporation. Earthtrust is a worldwide nonprofit organization dedicated to transnational environmental problems that are not addressed by local environmental movements. Earthtrust's Director, Don White, has organized a global network on a shoestring, equipping volunteers in remote areas with inexpensive computers, modems, and electronic mail accounts. The well-planned use of electronic mail enables him to knit together a geographically dispersed organization highly effectively. "Our organization has accomplished goals over the last two years that rival the achievements of organizations with twenty times Earthtrust's annual budget," he claims.

Nonprofits and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) do the people-feeding, prisoner-liberating, house-building, wilderness-saving, humanitarian and environmental work that falls between the cracks of government and for-profit organizations. The Red Cross, CARE, Amnesty International, Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and a proliferation of increasingly international NGOs are forming what Howard Frederick of Econet/Peacenet calls "Global Civil Society." Traditionally, such organizations are overworked and underfunded. Even though they might gain power and save money by computerizing, the staff of many such organizations don't know where to start. Now, first waves technology-knowledgeable activists are providing expertise and training to others.

A nonprofit itself, CompuMentor matches volunteer technical advisers with nonprofits; mentors help organizations choose and purchase the right equipment at minimal prices, then to set up databases, publish newsletters, organize electronic mailing lists. The Association of Progressive Communications (APC) brings affordable electronic mail and conferencing to hundreds of NGOs and nonprofits worldwide; APC's Econet, Peacenet, and Conflictnet furnish all the benefits of worldwide networking to activists.

Others who are working to improve the quality of civic life have been experimenting with an application of many-to-many communications known as "civic networking."

COMPASS, funded by the Oregon Lottery, offers statewide access to BBSs, electronic mail, computer conferencing, and the Internet. School House, an item in the COMPASS main menu, is "a place for K-12 teachers, students, and parents to meet." Government information, state university libraries, health and wellness information, community calendars, "teleports" to other locations in the Internet, and a "Public Square" are other menu options.

Since 1988, Montana's "Big Sky Telegraph" has linked one-room schoolhouses with Internet tutors and connected nonprofit organizations such as the Women's Resource Center with sources of information and support. Rural schools, public libraries, rural economic development offices, organizations for employing the disabled, rural hospitals, were connected using inexpensive telecommunication technology that was in turn plugged into the vast network of networks known as the Internet.

It's happening in Hawaii and the Heartland, in Taos, New Mexico, Blacksburg, Virginia and Bloomsberg, Pennsylvania. There is LatinoNet, PeaceNet, and EcoNet. NativeNet and INDIANnet connect not only cities and states, but tribes.

Net technology makes possible a more democratic medium of expression than did previous communications technologies. A BBS-like public conversation is open to anyone who wants to join the discussion; it is not a "few-to-many" medium like television, talk radio, newspapers or magazines, but a "many-to-many" medium that gives large numbers of people access to large numbers of people. The power to persuade and educate -- to influence people's beliefs and perceptions -- is radically decentralized when people can communicate in this way: control is spread throughout the network.

In Bucharest and Moscow, crucial recent battles were not fought over armories; instead, television broadcast stations were the battlegrounds -- because mass-communication nerve-centers are strategic chokepoints in the flow of words, images, and ideas. The power to transmit information, in old-style mass-media, is concentrated in a small number of locations and institutions. Networks are radically different: Technically, any node on a high-capacity computer communications network can send, as well as receive, words, sounds, images, computer software, video, to any other node. Plugged into an ordinary telephone, a personal computer, becomes a printing press, a broadcasting station, a town hall meeting.

Conferencing systems structure discussions according to topic, making it easier for people to find others who share their interests, and to request and offer specific information about problems to be solved. A person concerned about ecology can go to an ecology discussion area and browse the list of discussions, selecting from topics devoted to local water resources or national air quality. By organizing information this way, i networks of people can serve as informal support systems for one another; a conferencing system that includes a broad base of members with a wide variety of expertise is a "living database" in which everyone can serve as a librarian and consultant for everyone else. (Virtual Communities, p 262)

Geographic Information Systems (see p 14) combine maps and computer databases, creating another tool for political activists. Again, the falling price of computing power makes a tool that was once useful only to elites available to citizens -- for instance, GIS can be used to track the use or misuse of natural resources, or to detect illegal "redlining" in cities.

No tool in itself can be an answer to a human problem. Clear goals based on some variety of moral groundedness, provide the all-important context do you know what you want to build or destroy when you pick up a tool? Can you use the means at hand to enhance the welfare of your community? Much depends on how -- and why -- we use the tools that are now becoming available.

Go to Howard Rheingold's home page.

Go to Howard Rheingold's Introduction to the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog.

Go to Howard Rheingold's Taming Technology from the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog.