WE, THE STUNTED!
Whose fault is it anyway that the
Web plays no role in politics?
By: Randall E. Stross
* * * * * * *
T HE BIG MOMENT NEVER SEEMS TO ARRIVE
THE 1996 ELECTION WAS SUPPOSED TO MARK THE FIRST YEAR WHEN THE INTERNET CHANGED EVERYTHING . IT DIDN’T. OK, THE PROPHETS THEN ALLOWED, WAIT UNTIL 2000. BUT WE KNOW ALREADY (TWO WEEKS IN ADVANCE,) THAT IN THIS ELECTION THE NET ONCE AGAIN WON’T BE A FACTOR.
Issues, candidates, ballot casting---—all unchanged. The prophets are really imperturbable, however. Just you wait for ‘04, we’ll soon hear.
I don’t doubt that someday we’ll get to vote in our bathrobes, once our keyboards have built-in thumbprint pads or tiny cameras can scan our retinas to prove we are who we claim to be. But by then, who, other than centenarians, will bother to click?
The political Establishment has done little to rock the vote and persuade the first generation of Internet babies---—today’s young adults who do not remember life before the Web----—to care a whit. A sign of the times: Harvard’s Kennedy school has launched “the Vanishing Voter” project. Of most concern to the project’s researchers are the 18-to-29-year-olds who have tuned out the campaign.
To some extent, the generational problem is one of topics. Both presidential candidates have given inordinate attention to Medicare, Social Security, and prescription-drug coverage. When a professor in last week’s debate asked the candidates how they would address apathy among young people, George W. Bush talked about—--what else?---—Medicare!
Not getting jiggy with it.
The question offered Al Gore a chance to take off his tie, unbutton his collar, and let out the inner geek hiding within . Admittedly, neither H-lB visas for all technical workers nor foreign acquisition of U.S. telecommunications giants is likely to be the hot-button issue that will pull in the undecided among MTV’s demographic. But why not take up, even for the briefest of moments, the Napster case? Or the AOL—Time Warner merger? Or government surveillance of our E-mail? Any of the above would have been better than returning to that now familiar perennial, campaign-finance reform.
Gore apparently has decided to hide his command of details on tech’s policy agenda, lest he expose himself to renewed gibes from Bush about claiming to have “invented” the Internet. Once Leno and Letterman had their fun---—and now Snickers commercials, too---—there was simply no way to get the record corrected, even when the reporter who originally put the story into circulation tried to do so.
But why does Bush, of all people, think that he can cast stones in a case involving infelicitous phrasing and the Internet? Earlier this year, the governor of Texas asked this thoughtful question: “Will the highways on the Internet become more few?”
Suppose Bush and Gore early on had accorded New Economy topics more attention. Suppose the Internet had come up in debates on occasions other than when parents are screaming for pornography filters. Suppose Congress had at last shed what Wired’s John Perry Barlow described four years ago as its “intransigent not-getting-it-ness.” Suppose all states had in place Web voting, as Arizona tried this year in its primary. In other words, suppose we had abandoned the old politics in “meat-space”—Barlow’s phrase—and embraced the new.
Would the electorate that shows up on November and the outcome be really different? That leads to a depressing realization that it doesn’t matter.
There is no point in suggesting that Election 2000 is analogous to the election of 1952, when TV was present but not pervasive, nor looking expectantly to the next time around, in 2004 as the Web’s equivalent to 1960, the landmark election when TV became decisive.
The Internet won’t matter because we no longer possess the attention span required for an improved means of political communication to make a difference. The preceding dominant technology, TV, has permanently stunted us.
Consider the cornucopia of unbiased political information the Net already offers. Would you like biographies, issue positions and voting records on 40,000 candidates, from president to City Council members?
Nonpartisan Project Vote Smart www.vote-smart. org provides this and more, for free. Want to track down campaign contributions, by candidates---—or by donor name, ZIP code, or company? OpenSecrets.org is the place to go, and it too is free.
These and other sites place at the fingertips of any voter connected to the Net information that would make the Founders weep with joy. If these databases were consulted, we would become models of a well-informed citizenry. Yet aradoxically, the more information that is placed online, the less we collectively seem to be interested in it. It has arrived too late to save us from ourselves. Television has conditioned us to prefer images over substance, the simple over the complex.
It has not always been so . In Peoria, Ill., in 1854, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas tangled in an early debate, and what’s most striking is their audience’s appetite for seven hours of sophisticated discourse.
By contrast, this year’s campaign centered for how many weeks on close textual analysis of Al’s kiss of Tipper and George W.’s of Oprah. Meatspace politics is not about to go away..
U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT. Magazine
October 2000. (Pg. 47)
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