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.
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
of the Court" in 1963 in the case of The New York Times versus
Sullivan begins with two great commentaries on this amendment:
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."
Justice Brandeis...gave the principle its classic formulation:
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.'"
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
and Habits of Mind
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
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."
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
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
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
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
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.
Technology, New Freedom
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.
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.
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.
Democracy: Six Requirements
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
This title is borrowed, in part, from Ithiel de Sola Pool, Technologies
of Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).
Daniel Bell, "Social Science: An Imperfect Art," The Tocqueville
Review 16, no. 1 (1995), 13. return
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
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
Alexander F. Kerensky, The Crucification of Liberty (New
York: John Day, 1934), 104, 119, quoted in Barber, Book of Democracy,
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.