We live in the information age, whether we like it or not. What we do with that information and whether we learn to use it effectively will determine whether we change or become eternal troglodytes.
Newspapers, news magazines, blogs, YouTube, and television news all are in the process of defining who they are and what role they will play in the future. The Economist, a magazine of studied thoroughness and detail, has devoted much of one issue to the phenomenon of how we are dealing with information. Coming to grips with the potential impact of information has staggered some of our more prominent pundits.
Of enormous import is how we use new technologies to enhance our governmental process. Among the key issues is whether technology can assist elected officials in doing a better job of representing their electorate or whether they will continue to rely on lobbyists or influential political action committees to shape our governance.
We can recall the birth of our nation wasn't easy. The constitutional convention that created the framework for American life took many years and bitter debates before agreement was reached. The leaders struggled with how decisions would be made and by whom, how to divide the powers of government, and the role of states. Unlike the health care debate, there seemed a to be a desire to compromise and seek agreement. It was a tortured process nonetheless.
Inherent in that debate was the conflict over who was most qualified to vote and decide the welfare of the people. Back then, the answer was the gentry, the educated males who owned property. They feared the "tyranny of the majority" and opted for those who could read and were assumed to have wisdom.
Through years of battle, most everyone can now vote. With new information that 40 percent of our public can't read at the eighth grade level and others questioning the efforts to extend the vote to convicted felons in prison, some have started to wonder whether our electorate has the knowledge to vote on complex issues.
Members of Congress have made accusations against one another about not having read the health care bill, not to mention the thousands of protesters on both sides whose only information on the bill's contents was from promoters or opponents. Even if the public actually had the vote on health care, it's reasonable to speculate that their vote would not have been based on careful study and analysis.
There is still continual debate, moreover, among the people about whether the concept of representation means that those we elect should represent the wishes of the public or represent the public using their best judgment. Adding to the confusion is the constant handwringing over the usefulness of citizen initiatives and what might be called the Tim Eyman theory of government. Government generally hates the populist notion of governance by ballot measure, but citizens sometimes feel an initiative is the only way to get elected officials' attention.
With fewer newspapers, how should people learn about issues and communicate with their elected officials — letters, e-mail, tea parties, public demonstrations offering media attention? Corporations can afford lobbyists and advertising to encourage messages to government, but legislators still have no reliable, measurable way to determine public thinking on specific issues. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has given even more power to already-influential corporations.
In this age of high technology, where private enterprise knows what brand of toilet paper we prefer and what books we read, you would think we could develop a system to get more reliable fixes on public opinion. As an example, we really have no measurable, unbiased data on how many Americans favor various aspects of the proposed health care legislation.
What might be the advantages of taking a longer look at the legislative decision-making process in relation to a completely new world of information measurement? The corporate world has moved forward in data collection and data-based decisions. Amazon knows what books you bought and can quickly tell you of others you might want to buy by analyzing your reading habits. The grocery store knows what brands you prefer and RFID chips in our credit cards blab even more information about us to hidden receivers. Walmart, for example, has data bases on customer transactions that process the equivalent of 167 times the amount of information contained in all the books in the Library of Congress every hour of every day. The concept is as staggering as is the fact they use that information to make marketing decisions.
Growing, but still in its infancy, is the impact of large amounts of detailed government information. Does it help or hinder governmental transparency? The citizen, while having more access to public records, is still handicapped because government often fails to index its records. It is equivalent to a boss hiring a secretary, supplying a file cabinet and hundreds of file folders, only to discover that, after all the filing is done, the secretary failed to label the tabs of the folders.
But, with the growth of information, what does all this have to do with the quality of our government? Certainly, the public can now actually read proposed legislation and let elected politicians know what they think about it before it's passed. Would better Informed voters help legislators make better decisions? Government might argue that they try to inform voters, but they don't all get the message.
For many years, the Colorado city of Ft. Collins (population: 100,000) distributed a survey every quarter to discover what citizens thought of their administration. The questionnaire asked how various city departments were doing their job, what the public wanted done, and even how the pulbic would grade on their performance. Many city workers and politicians ended up thinking the surveys made their job easier.
Just imagine Seattle City Council asking for grades on their performance or the ability for the public to tell the Department of Transportation what they think of street maintenance. Would the planning department like to hear what the public thinks of all the new development or do they listen only to developers? To address that issue Councilmember Bruce Harrell has proposed some new electronic form of sampling public opinion. According to his web site, a new public engagement tool will be launched in the second quarter of this year. There are few details, but Harrell talks about adding tools quickly, including a "a simple online poll to capture resident'ês feedback."
Not all legislators may like more transparency or access to what are public values. What would their re-election chances be if they consistently voted opposite of public surveys? We quickly get back to the old debate on the "tyranny of the majority"; is the rank-and-file citizen qualified to weigh the often-complex issues involved in administering a city? Seattle's citizens might argue that while they may not have all the data that lawmakers have access to, they do know what direction they want their city to follow. They want their values represented!
We will still need the wisdom to make sense of all the information available and there will be pitfalls and screw-ups, but the future for the information age offers great hope for our fledgling republic. Or is it a democracy?