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The Internet: Democracy Potentate

By Gabriel B. Eber

During a characteristically misguided State of the Union address a few years back, our not-so-fearless leader extolled the virtues of the information superhighway to a cheering Congress.

I recall sneering under my breath and shaking my fist at the screen, squelching the urge to spit in disgust. The American people should be so lucky that they worry about universal access to something called the Internet. This was coming from an administration that had failed to feed its poor or house its veterans. The prospect of the Web in West Virginia and the Usenet in Utah seemed like the classic tactic of bread and circus, only without enough bread to go around.

In retrospect, I'm glad I held my saliva. I've come to believe that universal access to the 'Net is no longer a luxury. It is a technological necessity for the equitable spread of true and genuine democracy.

You won't find the concept of true and genuine democracy in the history textbooks with which we grew up. (If we remember anything from those red, white and hefty tomes it should be the ubiquitous image of the bald eagle on the front cover. It may be the only one you'll ever see.) No, true and genuine democracy has little to do with checks, balances, bicameralism or even Election Day. Instead, such democracy is grounded in the equitable distribution of power and material resources across the entire socio-economic spectrum.

To hope for a sudden redistribution of wealth in America is even less productive than playing solitaire without a full deck, since you can still build a sizeable house of cards with the latter. Only the naive and admirably idealistic foresee the corporations and their contracted lackeys impulsively parting with their inflated salaries and offshore accounts. And as for the redistribution of political capital, the party bosses likewise seem to be holding fast to their power, even if only in exchange for a night in the Lincoln bedroom.

Enter the Internet. Money and political power may be out of the reach of the many, but the nascent commodity of information needn't be. With the click of a search engine, anyone with a computer can access information that, until recently, was available solely to those wealthy enough to pay research assistants. Think your boss is taking advantage of you? Within minutes you can wave a complete copy of your company's labor relations history in his face.

Being told that sex with the network manager is the only way to get a new mouse pad at your workstation? Hop on the Internet and communicate with other victims of sexual harassment worldwide.

But access to information is only one half of the democratic equation. With a couple hours work anyone can become his or her own publishing house. Think that the mainstream media are ignoring the toxic sludge being dumped in your backyard? Put it on the Web with sounds, pictures and video clips of three-headed squirrels.

In theory, the Internet allows anyone to tap into fertile fountains of fleeting information. Had de Tocqueville visited this country today, there is little doubt that the Internet would have taken first place as the (virtual) civic institution par excellence. Democracy in America could only imagine such potential for civic engagement. No longer limited by under-funded public libraries or the high cost of owning books, any netizen can strive toward informational parity with CEO's and government bureaucrats alike.

In theory.

But the truth is that most Americans do not have reliable net access and may never get it. Monthly access fees can equal a tank or two of low-test gas. A personal computer powerful enough to handle today's Internet software can cost well over $1000, or roughly five straight weeks of minimum wage pay. And hardware that is workable today will likely need replacement in five years.

While computers are certainly more common in homes today than they were a decade ago, they will always be costly and out-of-reach for many. To compound the problem, the folks who are least likely to afford a computer are also the ones least likely to have net access at school or work.

Unless net access becomes universal, we can expect a deepening of class divisions. Three information-castes will form: those who know, those who don't know but know how to find out over the net, and those who don't even know the information they are missing, let alone how to access it. Not surprisingly, these castes will parallel the existing tripartite class structure on which our economy is based.

We have seen how popular the net kiosks around campus have been. Why not have similar stations on street corners and at supermarkets? Every American who wants one should be assigned a lifetime e-mail address. Take steps to promote the installation of fiber optic cable nationwide or enact a tax break for personal computer purchases.

Yes, these measures won't come cheap. But neither does good democracy.

Gabriel B. Eber '97 was a columnist Spring '97 and Chief Photographer in '96.

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