First came information, then opinion. The Internet's next step may be electing a president
TIME WAS, we thought that a conclusive demonstration that the emperor had no clothes would be sufficient to overturn his reign. No leader could take power without media support; no ruler could keep his throne without the cooperation of the press. But the consolidation of media in recent years -- a series of intermarriages consecrated by the FCC -- has created a panic among tube-feeding activists like myself. Increasingly, the opportunity to define the "truth" has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. What's more, the new Media Hyperbarons are corporations of such colossal wealth and power that they are guaranteed to support the status quo that gave rise to them.
Luckily, expression has a new ally -- the Internet. In recent years, the discussion groups and mailing lists that populate the net make it possible for anyone to publish anything and present it to anyone who owns a computer.
More than anything, the Internet has sprouted information. We no longer need start our day with the parochial local rag. Log on to the Internet and you can lose yourself in news from around the world, from the South China Morning Post to the convulsively funny English-language edition of Pravda. And there's more: the web hosts history's greatest bumper crop of points-of-view, exposes, and paper trails: from The Smoking Gun's archive of celebrity police blotters to Cryptome's whistle-blowing documents on governmental embarassments. Browse Technorati's index of Top 100 interesting weblogs -- sites edited by individuals grinding personal axes -- and you'll turn up a dozen news stories that are being worn as smooth as river-stones by amateur analysis.
When Trent Lott's revealing faux pas about Strom Thurmond was lightly touched upon by the press, the Internet's howling masses seized on the story, reviving it with a fresh angle -- Lott backhandedly endorses segregation! -- and kept the news cycle going long beyond its expected lifespan, until Lott crashed and burned and lost his post as Senate majority leader.
Huzzah. Of course, Lott is still a senator. In fact, every scandal exposed by or through the net -- INS witchhunts, stubbornly illusory WMDs, awarding of war-pork to Halliburton -- has yielded a decidedly hollow victory.
Information is power, but it's not enough. Modern emperors have learned the knack of spinning revelations of wrongdoing and bouncing back. Thus far, the Internet has lacked the follow-through necessary to make a lasting difference. That's changing. As the Internet matures as a place for political action, services like the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Action Center (punch in your ZIP and e-mail your lawmaker), MeetUp's coordinated nationwide kaffeeklatsches for every Democratic candidate (but especially Howard Dean) and MoveOn's thronged mailing list millions (who can conjure the budget for a major media-buy on 24 hours' notice) are providing the bodies, budget and means for advancing proposals and seeing them through to their ends.
This new form of net-activism heralds a change in direction. In the beginning, net.wisdom held that netheads should remain aloof from politics, first to keep from sullying themselves, but more important because the net was immune to regulation, due to its radical, decentralized nature. Traditional, horse-trading Beltway politics had no place online. But as regulators turned their eyes netwards, proposing laws like the Communications Decency Act -- a broad and probably unconstitutional censorship bill that would have "protected" adults and kids alike from "indecent" material -- the Internet got politicized. The fights to keep the Internet open and free are crucial; the Internet can't serve as a conduit for independent analysis if it's being regulated by those it calls to task.
Turning information into action is not easy. The quaint isolationism of the Internet's early days is seductive: In the sublime purity of bits and binary, who needs the sticky, ugly business of politics? The more recent flavor of naysayer Internet politics, in which large groups of people were informed of suppressed information and enraged into lashing out, is easy -- at least when compared with the political deal: putting your own items on the political agenda.
This last has been reserved for the lobbyists who know congressional staffers by name and take lunch with administrative agency heads. Once the agenda was set, the Internet could be called upon to give it gas or put on the brakes, but the ability to make your issue part of the political agenda was beyond the net. Steering is far harder than speeding up or slowing down, but bit by bit, the Internet is learning how.
Cory Doctorow (firstname.lastname@example.org) is co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing (boingboing.net) and is a staffer for the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation (eff.org).
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.