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Virtual Democracy -- is it time for the real thing?

by Robert Marcom

a definition for Virtual:
nearly the real thing; a practical approximation. *

our cyber-culture is becoming used to every sort of virtual (insert the latest programming triumph here) reality. Virtual offices, even entire virtual "worlds" abound in cyberspace. We have virtual meetings over the 'net which are nearly as good as the "real" face-to-face kind. They may even be better. Meetings are much more congenial when one may show up in a tutu, and pick one's nose.

In a strange twist, electronic technology has offered the possibility of replacing virtual democracy with the actuality of a direct one. The first direct democracy is lost to us in fathomless time. It probably evolved with paleolithic peoples as they lived in small groups, occupied with hunting and gathering. Small "d" democracy is common among bush people still living their aboriginal lifestyles in remote areas of the world. Every adult member of the tribe has a say, including women.

Direct Democracy is an immediate government by all the people. Representative Democracy is a practical rule by the people through an agent. The ancient Greeks, contrary to the common myth, did not practice direct democracy in the same sense as do the aboriginal peoples. The Greeks created a representative democracy. They decided on a process to empower citizens to represent the less capable: women, servants, slaves, the infirm and the poor. They needed citizens. Clearly, choices had to be made.

First (they decided) a citizen should be an adult male with property. A good reputation among the "Old Boys" was required as well. These citizens were then given a vote. They were empowered as a group with the right to rule over women and other non-citizens. This was clearly a step backward from the more "primitive" egalitarian system of the aborigines.

Practical necessity made virtual (representative) democracy the modern system of choice. It was a functional necessity which Great Britain, Canada, the USA and other big "D" democracies each wholeheartedly embraced at the beginnings of their experiment. News and information took months or even years to arrive before the advent of railroads.

Immediate problems require immediate responses. No government, however egalitarian their intentions, could wait so long for a vote to be tallied. Representatives were supposed to be people who were in touch with the needs and requirements of the constituency. So far, so good.

Recent polls and surveys indicate our representatives often no longer connect with the people they are supposed to represent. In fact, many of those representatives decry other politicians for paying attention to the polls. But wait--isn't that the job they were given to do, to connect with the "will of the people?" More real (as opposed to virtual) democracy would be a good thing, right?

Apparently not; the confusing prospect of direct democracy scares the pants off of politicians. And, a new channel for direct democracy is looming over their futures. It's all the fault of computers and electronics.

Politicians seem to have disconnected themselves from the will of the majority at the same time computers and electronic networks are connecting the masses. Not virtual connections, like "representation," but rather real-time connections. Global, real-time connections. Things do not look good for those who would continue to misrepresent the will of the people. This would appear to be a virtual certainty.

* Merriam Webster Thesaurus (Simon & Schuster, 1980); The Modern Word-Finder (Grossett & Dunlap, 1934)

Robert Marcom is a freelance writer and canadian content's "stringer in Texas"
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