Hyperdemocracy -- online political decision-making and elections -- is more than an emerging technological possibility. The prevailing vision of 21st century society now includes a government situated in cyberspace.

Hyperdemocracy today conjures up images of e-mail voting, widespread electronic referenda, and lively online town meetings and debates. It is even reasonable to predict that elected representatives themselves may eventually govern through wired, cyberspatial assemblies, accessed by computer while they remain in their remote electoral regions.

Many cyberspace enthusiasts, including Vice President Al Gore, believe that developments such as these can help to both re-empower voters and revitalize democracy. Gore points out that the printing press made possible both the modern nation-state and representational democracy by giving citizens enough civic knowledge to participate in decision-making. And he predicts that the impact of interactive, multi-way computer networks on citizenship may be as profound.

Hyperdemocracy -- the theory goes -- will involve citizens more directly in political decision-making and, to quote Time magazine, reverse the "distorted top-to-bottom information cascade" and end "a half-century's buildup of lawyer-lobbyists who represented interest groups (including the media) more than they did voters."

No one pretends to know what the full impact of the Information Age will be on our democracy. But it is certain that the ramifications extend far beyond a simple adaptation of current election and governmental procedures to the new digital media.

Newt Gingrich's Progress & Freedom Foundation, for instance, under the grand title Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age, issued a statement representing "the cumulative wisdom and innovation" of dozens of people, including Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth and Alvin Toffler.

This statement declared, "As humankind explores this new 'electronic frontier' of knowledge, it must confront again the most profound questions of how to organize itself for the common good. The meaning of freedom, structures of self-government, definition of property, nature of competition, conditions for cooperation, sense of community and nature of progress will each be redefined for the Knowledge Age -- just as they were redefined for a new age of industry some 250 years ago."

The optimistic vision is that hyperdemocracy might offer new hope to our democratic institutions now so besieged by social crises and rampant public mistrust. However, this optimism is far from universal.

PRO AND CON

As a "think-piece" on hyperdemocracy by Rand Corp.'s David Ronfeldt pointed out, "Despite initial hopes that 'electronic democracy' and 'teledemocracy' would increase popular participation and government responsiveness, mainstream analysts have continued to worry that the new technology may be used to undermine democratic practices."

Ronfeldt cites political scientist Richard Neustadt, who predicted in the early 1980s, "A wave of new technology will transform campaigning, political organizing, news coverage, lobbying and voting. Some of these changes may make campaigning less costly and bring decision-making closer to the people. But the greatest impact may be to fragment our politics, narrowing people's perspectives, shifting more power into special interest groups, and weakening the glue that holds our system together."

Election '96 is proving to be the campaign year where we take the first real steps toward a national hyperdemocracy. Web sites focusing on election issues have sprung up like wildfire. Politicians are flocking to the Web to erect campaign sites of their own. There is diversity aplenty and a sincere interest by many to use the Internet to bring new depths to the election process.

However, when it comes to information, content is the bottom line. And the harsh reality is that despite all the rhetoric about reinventing government for the 21st century, we may be actually starting to see all of Neustadt's predictions come true -- the good and the bad.

WEB COMMERCIALS 'R US

In a speech about revitalizing democracy in the

Blake Harris  |  Editor