Technologies of Freedom?
by Lloyd Morrisett

In the United States much of our freedom, as we
understand it, is defined and protected by the Bill of Rights, and especially the First Amendment to the Constitution.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The "Opinion of the Court" in 1963 in the case of The New York Times versus Sullivan begins with two great commentaries on this amendment:

"The First Amendment, said Judge Learned Hand, "presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and always will be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all."

"Mr. Justice Brandeis...gave the principle its classic formulation:

`Those who won our independence believed...that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law--the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.'"

When the First Amendment was formulated, passed by Congress, and later ratified by the states, the means of exercising First Amendment freedoms were face to face discussion, sending and receiving letters, and printing and reading newspapers. Distance and time might have been obstacles to exercising those freedoms, but size of population was not thought to be a factor. When the first Federal Congress convened in March 1789, the population of the United States was approximately 4 million. It is highly unlikely that the framers of the Constitution imagined that the passage of 200 years would bring a population of 250 million, and even more unlikely that they thought how changing technologies would interact with freedom and the exercise of First Amendment rights.

Technology and Habits of Mind

There is a forceful interplay between society and its technologies. Society creates technology, but society is also created by technology. As Daniel Bell points out, Marx said in Capital that "in changing the technical world, Man changes his own nature."2 If human nature is partially the result of a society's technologies, it becomes crucial to examine technology both to ascertain the effects of technological history and to attempt to infer the consequences of technological decisions on the future development of society.

There is no question but that the dominant communications technologies of the twentieth century have been the printing press, radio, television, and the telephone. All of us have been shaped by these technologies and by our use of them. They have been, in Ithiel Pool's phrase, "Technologies of Freedom." They have made knowledge available, opened our minds to events around the world, and in the case of the telephone, extended our means of conversation. One does not need fully to accept Marshall McLuhan's aphorism that "the medium is the message" to agree that both technology and its content have human consequences. Books, newspapers, radio programs, and television shows differ among themselves, but all involve the transmission of information and knowledge from a central source to many people. It is these economies of scale that make them so cost effective. An hour of prime time television programming may cost more than $1 million to produce, but when the cost is amortized over millions of people, the cost per person is minuscule. The rights to a book may cost millions of dollars, but the title can be sold for $25 a copy. With a book, newspaper, television show, or radio program, we receive the communication via a one-way street. Although it may stimulate our thoughts, arouse our emotions, or cause us to act, we are described as "readers," "listeners," or "viewers."

While reading, listening, and viewing all can involve thought and learning, because no conscious thought, response, or action may be required, they can also be highly passive activities. All of us have had the experience of reading a page and not being able to remember what was being discussed, or even a single word. On one level, our eyes process the words, but our minds are elsewhere. The stereotypic "couch potato" sits gazing mindlessly at the television set, thinking hardly at all. Nevertheless, certain techniques can greatly increase the likelihood of thought.

For example, questions can be introduced with the audience or reader invited to think of answers; anomalies can be created that invite resolution; moral dilemmas can be introduced with no immediate solution. These devices, however, depart from the normal conventions of the media. The absence of thought may be due to the lack of thought-provoking content, or possibly to hypnotic involvement with no time taken for reflection. Whatever the cause, I think it can be fairly argued that the technologies of broadcast communications and the printing press, on balance, favor the passive reception of information and entertainment.

I am not arguing against the value of reading, listening, and viewing. They are vital skills--skills that can open the doors of culture and education. It is rather that the technologies with which these skills are usually associated favor passive reception over active thought. Among the skills of information reception, reading has a special place. The proficient reader has access to knowledge that is denied to the less-skilled reader. The written word remains the storehouse of the world's wisdom and knowledge. Therefore, a special problem with television is that it has tended to displace reading in many young people's lives. If there were no difference in content between books and television, that displacement in itself might not be very important. The problem is that reading opens the door to symbolic thought, and without that skill the citizen is severely handicapped. The corollary skill of writing also has special cultural value: A means of ordering and communicating thought, the discipline of writing is a powerful antidote to sloppy thinking.

There are certainly many exceptions to my generalization that, on balance, the technologies of broadcast communications, including the printing press, favor the passive reception of information and entertainment. Many books stimulate thought and even demand it; yet many others simply provide escape and diversion. Newspapers can similarly stimulate thought, but often only provide diversion. In his classic study "What `Missing the Newspaper' Means,"3 Bernard Berelson acknowledged the "rational" uses of the newspaper in providing news and information. At the same time, he noted that reading the newspaper often becomes a ceremonial, ritualistic or nearly compulsive act for many people. Individual television and radio programs, such as Bill Moyer's Journal, Nightline, Fred Friendly's Media and Society, and others, may cause people to think, but few people would argue with Newton Minow that these are exceptions and not the rule. Finally, it is significant that we are called the "information society"--not the thinking society, not the deliberative society, not the society of reason and rationality.

The telephone is different. It is primarily a technology for conversation. Except when listening to a recorded message, people most often use the telephone to talk with each other. In this sense, the technology of the telephone favors active participation rather than the passive reception of information and entertainment. The limitation of the telephone in stimulating thought and deliberation, however, is that there is pressure for immediate response. In a telephone conversation, you seldom hear someone say, "Give me a few minutes to think about that." They may say, "I'll call back soon with some thoughts," but during the conversation itself, silence is likely to provoke the question, "What are you doing?" Perhaps people using the telephone are conscious that time is money, that when they use the telephone their bill is increasing; or in the absence of visual cues about the other person's feelings, people may simply feel uncomfortable with telephone silence. Whatever the reason, the technology of the telephone, while involving activity, favors immediacy of response over deliberative thought.

This need for time for deliberative thought was brought home to me on a visit to Japan. In the early 1970's, several of us went to Japan to discuss the production of a Japanese version of Sesame Street. With two colleagues from the United States, we met with the management of a Japanese television network. None of the Americans spoke a word of Japanese so naturally we had translators at the meeting. We would discuss an issue in English, and our comments would be translated into Japanese. Our Japanese counterparts would reply in Japanese which would be translated into English. Only after the meeting ended did we discover that all the Japanese present spoke perfectly good English. Whatever else the translation accomplished, it provided time for the Japanese to think over their comments before making them. They had time to think and deliberate-a distinct advantage in negotiation!

A Benevolent Tyranny

The communications technologies that have permeated our lives--the printing press, radio, television, and the telephone--have brought enormous benefits. They have been technologies of freedom. They have made information and entertainment available to the masses at a very low cost per person. The telephone has made conversation at a distance commonplace, and the costs of those conversations are steadily decreasing. Being able to talk from New York to California for 10cents a minute or less, would have been unimaginable 50 years ago. Yet with all their advantages, these technologies have also exercised a benevolent tyranny over us. They have favored passive reception of information and entertainment over thoughtful reaction, and the telephone has favored immediate response over considered and deliberative response.

What I am describing as a "benevolent tyranny" would be judged more harshly by others. Many observers of our political system decry its dependence on television advertising and the techniques of mass marketing. The presidential debates, arguably the only political events that are somewhat designed to stimulate thought, have not yet been institutionalized. In the 1992 campaign, it is notable that Ross Perot's "Infomercials" drew large audiences. Designed in part as teaching vehicles, they were very different from the normal campaign advertisements. Other critics are very concerned about a concentration of media ownership which may consequently narrow the range of ideas to which the public is exposed.

I believe that we are fortunate indeed that the tyranny has been benevolent and that, despite the decline of the habits of mind that are associated with reason and rationality, we have remained a constitutional democracy. Although demagogues such as Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy saw the potential for power and tyranny in our mass communications, they were not in

a position to dominate our institutions. Conditions were very different in Nazi Germany: Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels saw that rationality was the enemy of National Socialism and dictatorship, and that modern mass communications (radio and newspapers) offered unlimited power to displace reason through the use of propaganda. In Hitler's view: "What luck for governments that people don't think. Thinking may be done only when an order is given or executed. If this is different, human society could not exist."4 Goebbels, who carried out a program of propaganda and the displacement of reason, would "see that the press be so artfully organized that it is so to speak like a piano in the hands of the government, on which the government can play."5

As human beings, we are extremely adaptable to the conditions in which we find ourselves. For those who live at sea level, the sudden transition to life in the mountains at 8,000 feet usually brings some discomfort, shortness of breath, and perhaps a headache. But for almost everyone except those with respiratory incapacity, adaptation is complete within a few weeks in the mountains. Life on a farm with relatively few human contacts, living in harmony with the rhythms of the days and seasons, seems normal to the farmer. Yet most people who grow up on farms are able to adapt to the frenetic life of the city. And so we have adapted to the benevolent tyranny of our communications technology. Apart from a few holdouts, we have eagerly become compulsive consumers of information, viewers of television, and radio listeners. The decline of study, analysis, reflection, contemplation, and deliberation--the mental habits of reason and rationality--has largely gone unnoticed. We have adapted to the conditions that we and our technologies have created.

New Technology, New Freedom

In the mid and late 1990's, the great story of communications technology is the growth of computer communications. Headlines announce the emergence of on-line services and corporate changes and acquisitions that involve these services. Underneath these headlines there is another, more important, story. Internet traffic is growing at a staggering rate. A recent estimate is that Internet traffic is doubling in volume every hundred days. Despite all the publicity surrounding new proprietary Internet services, the major use of the Internet is for electronic mail, or "E-mail" and its close relations: bulletin boards, chat rooms, list serves, and news groups. Just as the printing press, then radio, and finally television were technologies of freedom in their times, computer communications and E-mail can be a technology of freedom now. Just as those earlier technologies of freedom carried with them dangers to freedom, so will the Internet.

The way will soon be open for Ross Perot's "electronic town halls" to become a fixture of our national scene. More easily than ever before, a politician will be able to leap over normal governmental processes and take important questions directly to the public, raising all the dangers of national plebiscites. As potentially almost everyone will be able to participate, public decisions on questions of importance could be taken as mandates for political action. Even though it might not have any legal standing, surely an overwhelming national vote by this means on a question of importance would have compelling weight with any political leader. Tendencies toward plebiscitary democracy are already evident, and technological progress will accelerate them.

Citizen initiatives are another form of freedom, but the use and misuse of citizen initiatives illustrate both the advantages and dangers of plebiscites. In California (and at least 22 other states) the initiative gives people the right to place on the ballot legislation and amendments to the state's constitution and obtain a statewide vote. The idea behind the initiative was to allow people a means of expressing their political will in the face of legislative inaction or the opposition of special interests. The problem is that in California the ballot has become so loaded with complex initiatives that it seems to discourage people from going to the polls rather than motivating them to express their judgment. Outcomes seem more often to depend upon the effectiveness of political advertising rather than on the carefully weighed choices of an educated citizenry. The apparent limitations and failures of the initiative process suggest the dangers inherent in the new electronic technology: manipulation may be substituted for education and advertising for careful information-gathering; debate and deliberation may be overridden by the adrenaline of an immediate reaction; and minority opinions and objections can be lost in the voice of the crowd.

Enhancing Democracy: Six Requirements

The failures of the initiative process, the problems of plebiscites, and the dangers of propaganda and demagoguery suggest the characteristics that are needed to define democratic uses of new interactive information technologies and the Internet and make them true technologies of freedom. Requirements for at least six important features must be taken into account: access, information, discussion, deliberation, choice, and action. Perhaps the most important requirement is access.

Access: The experience of the last few elections, the meteoric rise of Ross Perot, and the popularity of the talk show and call-in format in television and radio all show the hunger of citizens for access to their leaders and to the means for expressing their own opinions and judgments. Provision for access does not necessarily mean that citizens will take advantage of it; not all citizens take advantage of their voting rights. Fewer than 50% of eligible voters participated in the 1996 presidential elections, and even fewer participate in primaries and most local elections. However, the importance of the availability of the vote cannot be exaggerated. Imagine the public's wrath if someone decided to begin restricting voting rights rather than extending them, as has been the historical trend since the founding of the Republic. A well designed national system of interactive information technology for consideration of important issues could be expected to be similarly treasured, but not necessarily universally used. It is this problem of access for a growing and diverse population, dispersed over a very large geographical area that makes a national system of interactive information technology civicly useful. If well designed, such a system can counter divisive trends and help bring the nation together.

Information and Education: A vital part of any deliberative discussion is the provision for relevant information. In the discussion of any issue, people enter the conversation with widely differing experience and information about the issue. Take the issue of healthcare. Many citizens understand that severe problems exist in our present system of financing and distributing healthcare; many are dissatisfied with managed care or see that their own insurance costs are rising rapidly; others know that they are uninsured or underinsured; older people may worry about Medicare and Medicaid cutbacks. Surveys show, however, that relatively few citizens have a thorough understanding of the forces that drive medical costs and the alternatives for provision of care that have been tried in the United States and around the world. Any general public discussion of healthcare must find ways to allow more citizens to be thoroughly informed about the issues and problems. Otherwise, debate will be based upon opinion rather than fact, prejudice rather than knowledge. A system of interactive information technology need not itself contain the vital information. References could be made to other sources of information ranging from reference material in libraries to documentaries on television. In fact, the national media would naturally be expected to carry much of the relevant information in any national discussion of an issue.

Discussion: Information technology can stimulate discussion not only between citizens and their leaders, but among the citizens themselves. Although radio and television broadcasting has been a superb means for the dissemination of entertainment and culture, news, and sports, a broadcast is a transmission from a central source to an audience. Not only is there usually no feedback from the audience to the source, but the audience typically receives the broadcast in individual isolation. Broadcasting, as a technology, does not naturally stimulate discussion among the people who receive the broadcast.

Networked computers offer quite a different model. Whether by computer conference or electronic mail, networked computing encourages people to communicate with one another. The experience of highly networked communities, such as Carnegie Mellon University or the nationwide SeniorNet organization, shows that when people are connected together over a computer system, they tend to communicate more broadly and intensively than without the system. The evidence is very clear that computer conferencing tends to reduce isolation rather than increase it. In order to discuss civic issues, people need easy ways to enter such discussions. Anecdotes tell of the local barber shop as one place where citizens have naturally gathered to talk with each other. Electronic technology can be used to provide a modern day equivalent of the barber shop, connecting citizens with each other all across the nation and with their leaders.

Deliberation: Any interactive communication system must provide the means for deliberation, that is, the careful consideration of an issue and the likely consequences of decisions. For deliberation to occur, provision must be made for the presentation of various sides of a question and attention to different approaches to outcomes. The great issues of our time -- such as healthcare, the improvement of the educational system, the functioning of the economy, or political reform -- are extremely complex and cannot be deliberately considered in any brief period of time. Work by the Public Agenda Foundation, over many years, has shown that even when issues are clarified, it usually takes at least six weeks, with a concentrated educational campaign, for people to deliberate about a problem and come to a reasoned judgment. In many matters, the time would be much longer, and it would not be unexpected if a year or even several years would have to be devoted to deliberative consideration before problems become clarified in the public's mind. The implication for a system of interactive information technology: whatever is done must be an ongoing process. There could be repeated uses of the system on a single topic, for example, a series of debates about healthcare lasting several months. The computer conference is an alternative model for such a deliberative system. In a computer conference, people have access to questions, facts, and opinions, and can take their time about when they are ready to give their own opinion. Input can be made at any time, and the ongoing output of the system can be studied until someone believes he or she has something to say.

Choices: Discussion and deliberation are sharpened when participants understand that choices among alternative courses of action must be made. The managers of an interactive system devoted to electronic democracy need to organize the process so that choices are the outcome. Responsible government is not merely a means of educating the citizenry, but it is also a process of making choices that shape the future of society. With some deliberative dialogues, the possible choices may be clear from the beginning -- this might be the case if the issue were the deployment of limited resources among various desirable ends. How should limited resources be allocated to healthcare, education, and scientific research, for example? In this case, the rough nature of the alternatives is clear even though much would need to be learned about the consequences of choices and details of proposals. With other types of issues, it is likely that the nature of the choices themselves would only emerge during the deliberation. No one has any easy answers as to how to revive decaying central cities, and it is likely that reasonable public choices can only be developed during the course of extensive deliberation. If actions are to be taken, however, choices must be made, and in the development and application of a system for electronic democracy, citizens should understand that one of the major purposes of the dialogue is to make such choices.

Action: Why should citizens enter into the hard work of education, discussion, deliberation, and choice? They must understand that when they go through that hard work their choices and judgments will be used. Many people agree that the responsible choices and judgments of citizens are important, but debate how they should be used. Some believe that it will be enough if citizens understand that their choices are listened to by the elected representatives and taken into full account in legislative and executive action. Others believe that it is vital that the final choices of a well conducted national deliberation have the essential force of law. This is, of course, what the initiative process was supposed to accomplish. National initiatives may be part of our future freedoms. Absent national initiatives, it might be sufficient to know that clear national choices resulting after a period of substantial deliberation would, by their very nature, have a compelling effect on legislators and national executives. It is hard to see how a legislator could be expected to be reelected if he or she failed to take into account the clear will of his or her constituency. As there is relatively little experience in many of these areas, however, it may be necessary to experiment with several models of electronic democracy.

The authors of the Federalist Papers, when they argued the case for the American experiment, were well aware of two great questions about politics and human nature. One question was whether there could be a viable democratic republic in an extended geographical area with a heterogeneous population. The other was whether human beings are capable of peacefully and deliberately defining and shaping their own futures, or whether the future will inevitably be determined by power and accident. The growth of population and the advance of science and technology sharpen our appreciation of the importance of these two questions. The geographical size of the United States is far beyond that imagined by any of the founding fathers. The population growth has far exceeded what anyone expected a hundred years ago. At the same time, science and technology have greatly increased the power available to rule populations by force. Science and technology can also be applied to allow the American experiment to become more effective, however, to engage citizens in responsible discussion and deliberation about their future; to enable the nation to make choices and shape its destiny more effectively; to give elected representatives the confidence that they can do their work based on an educated citizenry working with, rather than in opposition to, government. Electronic information technology will be used for political purposes. Whether it is used for demogoguery or democracy, the choice is ours." 6


1 This title is borrowed, in part, from Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies of Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

2 Daniel Bell, "Social Science: An Imperfect Art," The Tocqueville Review 16, no. 1 (1995), 13. return

3 Bernard Berelson, "What 'Missing the Newspaper' Means," in Communications Research, ed. P.F. Lazerfield and F. Stanton (New York: Harper, 1948-49), 111-129. return

4 Richard Abraham, Alexander Kerensky: The First Love of the Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 22, 25, quoted in Barber, Book of Democarcy, 312. return

5 Alexander F. Kerensky, The Crucification of Liberty (New York: John Day, 1934), 104, 119, quoted in Barber, Book of Democracy, 321. return

6 Much of the material in this paper is drawn from two of my essays: "Electronic Democracy," and "Habits of Mind and a New Technology of Freedom." Both are published in: Morrisett, Lloyd N. Collected Essays, The Markle Foundation, New York, 1998. return

I am indebted to many people for the thought and work that helped form the essays and this presentation. I would particularly like to thank: Jeffrey Abramson, Paul Aicher, Gary Arlen, Christopher Arterton, Benjamin Barber, Amitai Etzioni, Charles Firestone, James Fishkin, Siobhan Nicolau, Norman Ornstein, Gary Orren, Erik Sandburg-Diment, William Schneider, Deborah Wadsworth, and Daniel Yankelovich.