Digital Democracy and the New Age of Reason
by David Winston

Before I say anything, I think you should know that I am an unabashed optimist. Not everyone would agree that is necessarily a good thing. Somebody once said that if you see good in everything, you may be an optimist or you may just be nuts. I'll let you can make up your own minds when I've finished, but I appreciate the opportunity to be here to discuss the most important issue facing us as a civilization - the future of democracy in the Information Age.

But before we head into the future, I think it's important to reflect upon where we've been. Four hundred and eighty-one years ago, a young priest tacked 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and created a cultural upheaval called the Reformation that sent shock waves across the Old World. His ideas, put to paper with pen and ink, divided families and brought down kings. The world would never be the same all because a single man posted a powerful idea in a public place.

In Martin Luther's time, however, communicating an idea was much more difficult. In fact, nearly impossible, and so political conversations were, for the most part, the purview of the elite. Luther's ideas were powerful, but political conversation was almost entirely dependent on oral communications that only time could facilitate.

Now, let's fast forward two centuries to 1776. This time a fiery young printer wrote a pamphlet that called for revolution and freedom from an oppressive king. 100,000 copies of Common Sense were printed on a cumbersome hand press. Still a very slow way to disseminate information but light years faster than the pen and ink of Luther's time. Political conversation now reached a mass audience despite obstacles of illiteracy, geography, and government opposition. Out of that political conversation and the power of ideas, democracy was born.

Now, fast forward again... this time to the present. Today, we have the most fantastic means of communications in the history of the world literally at our fingertips, and more people are literate than ever before. Yet, we have a system of democracy where political conversation has become 10 second sound bites; where we hear media monologues instead of political dialogue; where politics has become the cult of personality instead of the power of ideas.

Then end result? People are rejecting current political conversation by simply saying, "This is not an important part of my world", returning politics more and more to the elite and that is dangerous to the future of democracy.

But like I said earlier, I am an optimist, and I believe the era of digital communications is, in fact, the prescription for what ails our current political system. Digital technology is the best way to communicate ideas, and democracy is the best means of realizing those ideas. I believe this to be the most powerful combination for improving civilization in the future.

Let me explain why. To me democracy is based on individualism, which is reflected in our ideas, freedom in all its forms, and in the effective balance of government and its people. Digital communications is going to change the political landscape in an extremely profound way. But it's also important to understand that the political terrain has undergone a dramatic transformation itself over the past eight years. Previously, we fought the war of ideas upon an ideological battlefield. Every issue or value had a conservative viewpoint and a liberal viewpoint. The philosophical battlelines were clearly drawn having evolved since the beginning of the New Deal. In recent years, however, culture has replaced ideology as the battlefield for the war of ideas - culture in a broad sense.

The focus in an ideological world is on individual values viewed by groups. In a cultural world, while values or issues may still have conservative or liberal viewpoints, it's the mix of values viewed by individuals that matters, and the relative importance of any one value is seen through a prism of other values. This creates our changing fabric of culture. So, for example, in an ideological world, the Communications Decency Act is a discussion about pornography with social conservatives favoring the legislation while libertarians oppose it. In a cultural world, it is a debate about pornography, international commerce, freedom of speech, family responsibility, and our right to define values for the world and government regulation. Individuals weigh all or some of these competing values in deciding how they stand on the issue.

Another way to see the change is to look at the evolution of technology magazines over the past fifteen years. In the 80's, these magazines were a litany of new products coming to market - how to use them, their cost, and their quality. There were several prominent magazines - PC Week, PC World, BYTE. All very good, but focused on the "how to" of technology. This is now shifting. Wired magazine isn't really about technology as much as it is about the vast behavioral change technology is bringing to our culture and just in time.

Over the past fifty years, we have strayed from our democratic roots. Robert Hutchins said, "the death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference and undernourishment." Digital technology gives us a second chance to revive political conversation in this country and bring democracy to the world; to go beyond the Information Age to a new Age of Reason.

We began to see the change in the early nineties when we, as a culture, crossed a digital Rubicon moving beyond mere computing to what I call the Four C's of the digital world: communications, content, collaboration and community, and no area of our lives will be more impacted by this change than our political conversation.

With the advent of the Internet, digital technology changed fundamentally from computing to communications. This transformation reached critical mass in the early nineties when it became a reliable means of communication between individuals. This gave people the ability to create better and richer content by combining the written word with voice and video. Additionally, content became data and could be searched for important bits of information. Suddenly, millions of documents were searchable instead of looking up indexes in books, or reviewing video or audio tapes. This ease in developing content was combined with a tremendous increase in speed and in a more convenient asynchronous communications paradigm that led to more effective collaboration. Finally, the ability to communicate more easily, develop better and more usable content, and the ability to more effectively collaborate led to new communities that allowed people, in a new way, to share interests and discuss them.

So, I'd like to take a moment to talk about how these four elements are changing this new world.

First, in this new Age of Reason, digital communications will deliver content and meaning in a way that empowers individuals at the expense of the elite. It will be individual-based. By that I don't mean extreme niche marketing - down to a market of one. In that paradigm, you gather all relevant information you can about a person and then deliver the message most likely to succeed. In this way, you are using several sets of behavior to target message i.e. young, eastern, white, wealthy, educated, liberal. In the new digital communications model, you begin to create a relationship so you know what interests the individual, the best way to address their concerns and you are instantly aware of the degree of your success. This is a model that requires you to focus your efforts beyond simply communicating an idea to creating a relationship in order to ensure that your ideas have meaning for the individual.

Second, the tempo of this new communications medium will be at a pace that is barely comprehensible today. There will be fallout. Most organizations are incapable of operating at this pace and failures will occur. Speed brings with it immense pressures as well. Whether you are CNN or network television or MSNBC or Al's "News on the Web", deadlines become irrelevant or in reality, non-existent. With the pressure to disseminate news in real time increasing dramatically, political conversation become constant.

Third, digital communications are also asynchronous. Both the political world and the media world will find it extremely difficult to adapt to this change. With increasing speed of communications, we will see the electorate demanding political information on their terms and in their time. Individual convenience will be an integral part of political conversation in the future.

Fourth, the American people will become increasingly more difficult to reach as information options explode. Today, we have several hundred channels of satellite television; remote controls to bounce from one information source to another; video tapes, computer games, and chat rooms as well as traditional outlets like radio and newspapers. This fracturing of the market has serious implications for those whose function in life is political conversation - namely the media and campaign professionals. In the 1980's, a 400 gross rating point buy was considered an effective level of advertising. In theory a single gross rating point means that an advertisement was seen by 1% of the media market it was shown in. A 400 point buy would mean that on average each person in the media market was exposed to an advertisement four times. In reality, some would see it six times, and others would see it only twice. If the buy were very targeted, some would see it eight times, others not at all. Now, it can take 1000 points a week or more to create a memorable impression with an audience, and this fracturing is likely to continue.

We're seeing fewer and fewer people reading newspapers. In fact, according to James Adams, the CEO of United Press, the number of newspaper readers has declined by 600,000 a year for the last ten years. Moreover, younger adults are abandoning the newspaper enmasse. While adult readership has gone from 81% to 64% over the past 30 years, the majority of young people 18-24 don't read a newspaper at all.

Television isn't doing much better. A Veronis Suhler survey predicts that we will see a 20 percent decline between 1990 and 2000 in the number of hours watched per person per year. Another survey, by ActivMedia Incorporated found that Internet users spend less time reading books and 70 percent said they watched less TV. Reaching people with a political message is becoming problematic and will get worse.

Fifth, in the past, even bad programs could get an audience. Now content is king and without it the audience evaporates. Message must be clear, pertinent, persuasive, and personalized, and people are demanding more and more interactivity in their communications. Political conversation must function under the same parameters.

Finally, the delivery of message - the cost of political conversation - will become much cheaper. The expense will be in creating the message and identifying the participants.

Communications, content, collaboration and community will clearly be the new arbiters of political conversation in the new Age of Reason. I'd like you to keep one thing in the back of your minds, however.

There is a real conflict going on in the communications world that is not party-based or ideologically based nor is it limited to the political arena. It's a paradigm shift from those who are analog-based in the way they think and communicate and those who are digital-based in their approach. This transition is difficult whether you're a Fortune 500 company or an elementary school or the United States Congress because it requires a fundamental shift in behavior -- never an easy task for the most flexible among us.

I believe, inevitably, digital will succeed. Our culture will dramatically transform itself. It's already happening and nowhere is the pressure more evident than on the three areas that most impact democracy - the media, the Congress and political campaigns.

I'd like to take a few moments to talk about these key elements of democracy; and how their role is changing in a digital environment. Let me start with what I know best - the Congress. There are two major relational shifts occurring in the congressional world.

First, members are beginning to build relationships with their constituents in different ways that provide a richer experience for both; and second, average citizens are gaining access to the kind of information only highly-paid Washington lobbyists had before. This second goal has been a particular priority of the Speaker and is an important construct of his clear vision for an Information Age Congress.

The Congress has begun to move to a more information friendly environment. Votes, texts of bill, schedules and floor statements are available on-line as well as the member information through individual websites. Most committees have done the same thing. All are realizing they have a unique opportunity to talk directly to the public. Moreover, they can communicate without the filters of the news media - an important political consideration.

We do see a certain unevenness in the implementation of digital technology member by member having more to do with age and attitude than party affiliation or ideology. Congress is still struggling with the concept of relationship building with constituents in place of traditional one-way communication.

The fear of constituent e-mail is a major hurdle. Most offices simply refuse to change how they do business to accommodate e-mail traffic. They view several hundred daily additional requests for information as a problem that will overwhelm their operations. Since most are still analog in behavior, they're probably right. Culturally, they must begin to view these new requests for information as an opportunity to convey their views to more citizens and from a mechanical standpoint, must redesign their internal processes to achieve this goal.

A lot of progress has been made, but major changes in organizational behavior are necessary. In most offices, there is a "geek" that puts up the web page. It's updated maybe once a week - if at all. Many web pages are put up by a central technology support unit for the House - never to be changed again. There are some offices that make regular updates. The Speaker's website is current as are other members' sites like Rick White of Washington, but too many waste their websites by lack of content and timeliness.

As a body, the Congress needs to understand the Four C's and the fact that the web is not primarily a technical environment but a communications environment. In most Hill offices today, a techie operates the website and begs the press person for something to put up on the website to keep it fresh. It is usually not a part of the overall communications plan but simply a device that lets the communications director present their member as technically savvy. However, as the Congress becomes younger, the number of members who understand the value of the web is increasing.

Eventually, offices will learn that it is much easier, faster and cheaper to respond to e-mail. Additionally, once the e-mail address has been captured, a member can begin to develop a relationship with that person. This shift alone makes me optimistic about the interaction of the Internet and democracy. Technology will make it easier and easier for Congress to talk to the public and vice-versa, and it is that political conversation that will generate the ideas to sustain democracy. When members change their focus, and they will, and begin building e-mail listservs of 15-20,000 people, they will be able to generate levels of contact with constituents unheard of before. As a result, they will be more effective in understanding and representing their constituent's views, and in a democracy, that's the name of the game.

Campaign politics is no different. Building a relationship with voters in a campaign is just as important as congressional constituent service. Digital communications, I believe, will radically change the way we conduct campaigns in this new Age of Reason.

Campaigns have been using the Internet for the last two cycles, but it is still a secondary consideration particularly in contrast to TV advertising. Many campaigns have had websites, but, like congressional office, sites have not been a part of the communications plan here either. In reality, campaign sites amounted to little more than digital direct mail or an easy outlet for media contacts. Once the content was put up, it changed little as the campaign progressed.

The Dole '96 website is a perfect example. It was a sophisticated site put together by techies but in a campaign full of people looking at the world through analog-colored glasses, no one saw the value in providing content that could have helped build relationships with potential voters.

Even though e-mail is free in contrast to snail mail, it also has not yet been effectively used to contact and deliver message in campaigns. The mechanism to create good e-mail lists has not been developed either in the political arena or in the marketplace. Most campaigns, however, are mass media oriented. It is much easier for campaigns to purchase advertising than to build a knowledge base of its relationships and then sustain those relationships through communication, content, collaboration and a sense of community.

But as we move into a digital world, as the market fractures and people demand convenient and personally meaningful information, the mass media paradigm that has been the staple of political campaigns and the bread and butter of consultants for years will become obsolete. This shift is not only a fundamental change. It will be a major battle as well. Many political consultants ridicule the concepts of the digital communications world or try to interpret them in an analog context to sustain mass media or keep the gravy train running.

The idea of not using mass media to win a campaign is outside most political operative's sphere of comprehension or, given the lucrative nature of mass media, is beyond their willingness to accept as reality. Certainly, for the foreseeable future, mass media will continue to be more important, but as the audience continues to fracture, the effectiveness of mass media will only decline. Eventually, even its staunchest defenders will have to admit defeat and move toward a digital campaign environment or go the way of the dinosaurs of another age.

Speaking of dinosaurs, the last area I want to discuss in terms of the impact of a digital world is the traditional mainstream media. Here again, the 4 C's - communications, content, collaboration and community will shape the future of the media and its role in encouraging and sustaining democracy.

We know that voter participation has declined steadily over the past thirty years with just over 50% of eligible voters casting a ballot in the last presidential election. We don't know all the reasons why, but what we do know is that people have tuned out the political conversation and that occurred long before the latest Washington scandal. The traditional media must accept some of the blame for this apathy and television the lion's share. In fact, Paddy Chayevsky once called television "democracy at its ugliest."

Can you imagine ABC News covering the Boston Tea Party - "This is Peter Jennings. Extremists polluted Boston Harbor today claiming to be fighting for lower taxes. Environmentalists called them tools of the landed gentry."

George the Third calling George Washington "out of control", I suspect, would earn more air time on CBS than a content-driven explanation of the key message points of Tom Paine's Common Sense.

And you can count on Dateline, Twenty-Twenty, 60 Minutes and Prime Time Live to all compete for the first exclusive interview with Benjamin Franklin's landlady on the good doctor's latest dalliance.

It's no wonder that today's political conversation means so little to most people, and why many now seek alternative sources - digital sources - of information. That search for unfiltered or at least self-filtered news is what's got the media elite up in arms.

Mainstream journalists will say they're fighting to maintain ethics and credibility in news dissemination, but they're actually fighting for their very existence. They understand that to lose control of the content and timing of news is to lose their power base. On-line reporters are generally given the same status in the mainstream reporting world that Ken Starr would get lunching at the White House mess these days. A digital-based reporter is considered credible only when he or she is published or appears in the mainstream media.

We see more and more analog stories on the dangers of the Internet: the threat of spreading wild rumors; the pressure of producing news in real time leading to bad reporting; the risk of having so-called "non-professionals" allowed to report news; the ability of any and every kind of group to push propaganda; the dangers of the Internet to our children. It's a Chicken Little approach to change that has little merit; more self-protective coloration than legitimate complaint.

James Adams, UPI's chief I spoke of earlier, has had a lot to say on the subject of the traditional media's ostrich-like rejection of on-line information as potential competition. He recently told a story of appearing on a panel of media representatives in Washington when the topic of the Web and the future of the media was raised. "Among my colleagues on the panel, " he said, "the word Internet was received like a bad smell, a passing inconvenience that no members of polite society would wish to discuss in public. It is that attitude that has contributed to the current sorry state of the traditional media." Those are the words of the leader of one of the world's oldest news organizations.

Clearly, the demise of traditional media, if it comes, will be the result of the media's failure to acknowledge the 4 C's of the digital age. They refuse to acknowledge the value of digital communication. They fail to understand that the increasingly filtered content of their news and, in the case of television, its 30 second sound bite paradigm no longer provides what people want. They seem unable to adapt to the notion that new collaborations are necessary in the new digital community in which we seek information and ideas.

News in the digital age - the new Age of Reason - will be increasingly individual - based. If you want to watch hype, you can still watch analog media, but if you want to understand the substance of issues, there will be many locations to walk you through even the most complicated of proposals. That doesn't mean these sources are any less biased than traditional news organizations but the filter will be out front and the focus will be on content; on ideas - which in anybody's framework is a better result.

America will be better off because political discussion will be driven more by the electorate; and when the electorate is engaged, it becomes more participatory. That's good for democracy. I think all of us understand that not all ideas are equal nor is every idea a good one. Winston Churchill put it this way, "When there is a great deal of free speech, there is always a certain amount of foolish speech."

The digital world doesn't prejudge ideas, it simply makes them more accessible - good and bad. But it isn't a substitute for the human mind. The individual must make the distinction between ideas of merit and madness. We didn't ban books because Mein Kampf was written. There will always be evil in the world, but censorship is never an acceptable substitute for diligence.

Consequently, culture, values and education become more important in a digital democracy because the individual will be vested once again with real power - the power of ideas.

I began today by telling you that I am an optimist. Digital technology, I believe, has the potential to radically change the world order much as Martin Luther's rough parchment and Thomas Paine's ink-stained pamphlets did in their time. I believe it can change the world for the better bringing education and enlightenment to corners of the world held too long in dark tyranny.

We've already seen the beginnings. Under siege in the Russian White House, Boris Yeltsin sent a fax to let the world know freedom was still alive. As academics connected on-line to reach across the Iron Curtain, the undeniable power of democratic ideals brought down the Berlin Wall. Today, over 600,000 people in China have access to the net and that number is expected to reach 7 million in the unbelievably short span of the next three years. Can democracy long be denied a people once they have tasted freedom? I believe the answer is no.

Franklin Roosevelt said that "Democracy is not a static thing." He was right. It is constantly changing; reinventing itself; expanding and retracting as the political environment warms and cools to its precepts. Digital democracy will be no different at its core, but it has an opportunity unlike any in the history of the world to bring people and ideas together. If we embrace this exciting digital world, our own democracy will be strengthened and civilization will surely embark on a new Age of Reason and a new era of individual freedom.