Information Technology in the Political Process

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

This is a revised version of my remarks at the Congressional Seminar on "Technology and Social Change" organized by the Consortium of Social Science Associations, June 1998.

This is a draft. Please do not quote from it.
Version of 28 October 1998.
2800 words.


What effect has information technology had so far on the political process? One answer is "nobody knows". Little research has been conducted on the matter. My own expertise derives not from research but from practical involvement. In 1993, for example, I observed that many Internet-based issue campaigns were doing more harm than good, and so I wrote the first manual on the subject. Some research does exist, however, and I will draw on it in my comments.

That said, another answer is "not much". In the political process, television is still the most important medium. The campaign workers who buy the TV ads are far more powerful than the ones who maintain the Web site. Surveys of the people who spend the most time on the Internet demonstrate that even those technically advanced individuals get only a small proportion of their political information on the Internet (Bimber 1997). Even more surprisingly, those individuals also conduct only a small proportion of their interaction with the government online.

When discussing the role of the Internet in the political process, therefore, we are mostly talking about anecdotes -- anecdotes that have been invested with hopes and fears out of all proportion to their actual impact. And we must distinguish between the thousand small- scale experiments that are happening now and the transformational innovations that we imagine might occur in the future.

It is particularly important to talk about the hopes that people invest in distributed information technology. Compared to the citizens of other countries, Americans' hopes for the Internet appear to be distinctive in certain ways. Let us consider a sentence from a respected scholar that epitomizes those hopes:

"telecommunications technologies ... are breaking down the barriers of time and distance that originally precluded the nation's people from voting directly for the laws that govern them" (Grossman 1995: 6; quoted in Bimber 1997)
I have read this sentence many times, and like many widely held beliefs about the new communications media, it seems to oscillate between common sense and absurdity. To begin to unpack the issues a little bit, I want to suggest five ways in thinking about it.

(1) The sentence I quoted is a relatively mild case of a new grammatical form that might be called the future present tense. Proponents of cyberspace use the future present tense when they issue a prediction -- that is, when they describe something they think will happen in the future -- as if it were already happening now.

(2) The assertion is also ahistorical; it suggests that the founding fathers of this country would have instituted direct democracy if telecommunications had been invented. The experiment is hard to do because the founding fathers are long gone. But it turns out that Madison spoke to the issue directly in the tenth Federalist paper -- the celebrated paper on faction. For Madison, it mattered that information, and particularly the information used by social movements, traveled slowly, so that a movement that arises in one part of the country would have difficulty spreading to other parts. He regarded this as a necessary condition for the success of republican government. If the Madison were alive today, he would probably regard the Internet with horror.

(3) The idea of direct democracy is also deeply embedded in cyberculture, that is, the cultural construction of the Internet by technologists. Yet the idea of direct democracy makes little sense. Information technology does facilitate the distribution of political information. But many things happen in the political process that nobody knows how to automate. Examples include legislative analysis, research, agenda formation, and coalition building. These are, not coincidentally, the primary functions of political intermediaries such as interest groups and political parties, not to mention legislative staffs. The Internet may be able to redistribute these activities geographically, but it will not eliminate them. (I owe this point to Francois Bar.)

(4) An even more straightforward problem arises with the notion, also widespread among technologists, that direct democracy will enable people to vote at home on a great many issues using the Internet. Few things are more clearly impossible. We employ neighborhood voting stations and voting booths for a good reason: you cannot prove that people's votes has not been coerced unless you physically remove them from their normal surroundings and associations. This problem can be hard for technologists to conceptualize because they define the notion of "voting" in a technical way for which the problem does not even arise (see, for example, Niemi and Renvall 1994).

(5) I will dwell on my final point at the greatest length, even though I do not have time to defend it fully. The sentence I quoted for you illustrates a deep-seated and specifically American idea: that the Internet will bring about a state of unmediated intimacy. The ideal of unmediated intimacy goes back to 17th- and 18th-century reformed-Protestant communitarianism in New England (Shain 1996). Even though many of the early utopian communities failed, the ideals that inspired them entered the national conscience in a powerful way, and they have structured cyber-discourse to an extraordinary extent (Agre 1998a). The concept of cyberspace, in other words, is an American social ideal projected onto technology, and the prediction is that the technology will bring about this American version of utopia.

I should emphasize that my complaint is not with the utopian vision -- we can talk about that another time -- but with notion that the technology will inevitably bring it about, or that it is even capable of bringing it about. Yet professional discourse about the Internet offers a standard story about the way in which the Internet is supposed to change things, namely through "disintermediation". A paradigm case of disintermediation is Wal-Mart. Sam Walton realized that people will to drive further to save money, and that information technology can track and predict inventories continually and in detail. As a result, Wal-Mart can ship products directly from the factory to the store, thereby eliminating the double-handling at the warehouse.

The notion of disintermediation is central to the social imagination of many computer people: it provides their theory of changes in markets, political institutions, business firms, higher education, and so on. For example, I sometimes receive electronic mail from computer people who have a political problem with college professors; their plan is to disintermediate me using information technology. They see me as a middleman standing between the students and the material that the students are learning, and they want to cut me out by distributing this material centrally over the Internet. Perhaps the most significant example of disintermediation is the "delayering" of organizations that is said to have taken place around 1990; Peter Drucker (1988) explained this phenomenon by pointing to the communicative function of middle managers -- they convey information up and down the hierarchy -- that computer networks are well-equipped to replace. Whether it really happened that way is hard to know. The point here, though, is that this idea holds a great deal of power among technical people. And these people want to disintermediate the democratic political system. They view political representation as the equivalent of warehouses.

We face, therefore, the intellectual challenge of identifying the elements of truth in the disintermediation story and separating them from the elements of the utopian vision that do not fit the data. It is crucial to discern a hidden assumption of the disintermediation story: the idea that information technology has an "effect" on the world through its own autonomous action. As a professor working on Internet issues at the local university, I am sometimes called by reporters who ask, for example, "What effect will the Internet have on privacy?", or (a real example) "What effect will the Internet have on relations between men and women?". If a reporter is calling on the phone and treating me as an expert on relations between men and women, clearly something is wrong. What's wrong is the notion that technology is having a unilateral effect on the world. Information technology certainly participates in important social changes, but it does so in several different ways, depending on its interaction with other factors. The disintermediation story may direct us to a real phenomenon, but it also direct us away from other phenomena that are frequently the predominant ones. Such is the case with the political system.

In particular, disintermediation is a story about information technology replacing things and destroying things. But another kind of effect is often more important: information technology can allow the same people to do more of the same things that they already do, amplifying some activities and not others, so that the whole system shifts to a new equilibrium. Although the matter requires further study, my personal sense is that the latter effect is the better way to understand the role of information technology in the political process.

Let us consider some examples.

The Internet has a role in mobilization and coalition work. One might, for instance, broadcast a message to one's coalition partners about an activity taking place in Congress. Electronic mail makes it easier for a coalition to agree on a unified message or draft a collective letter. An online group of coalition members' representatives might agree that dissents from a proposed draft should be raised within 24 hours, and that silence will be interpreted as agreement. This practice is certainly widespread, and it has the potential to increase the number of people who participate in political work from day to day. Yet the qualitative structure of that work has not changed. We are still talking about interest groups, their coalitions, their memberships, and their work of mobilization. Preestablished relationships among the members of a potential coalition are still crucial. What the technology makes possible is to accelerate these activities and broaden their scope. Activities that have been conducted extensively through fax machines can now be conducted on a much greater scale because of the Internet.

What is the actual magnitude of this phenomenon? Nobody knows. I know of no attempt to measure it, and indeed I have rarely encountered any curiosity about it. Such is the state of our models. Its extent is easily overestimated because of the prominence of anecdotes from cyber-enthusiasts and press releases from political consultants, as well as the use of the future present tense in the magazines where such things are discussed.

One aspect of the phenomenon for which the anecdotes are particularly compelling is in the role of the Internet in the globalization of the policy process. We have seen, for example, the emergence of globally organized interest groups such as women's and environmental groups and business organizations. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) for example, has been slowed by a highly effective global alliance of labor groups who have conducted coordinated actions in numerous countries (Drohan 1998).

The MAI story is an anecdote; what, intellectually speaking, do we do with it? The important analytical point is this: we are not watching the Internet unilaterally cause the policy process to globalize. Rather, globalization is a much larger phenomenon, and the Internet is part and parcel of that much larger picture.

Another example is the use of marketing methods in campaigns. Ideas and language from marketing have been used to fashion campaign messages for some time. More recently, information technology has made it possible to engage in much more of (what marketers would call) a "one-to-one" model of campaigning, in which a database records individuals' political leanings and major issues. Such databases can be used to customize mailings to potential voters and establish priorities for get-out-the-vote activities. This sort of thing existed before information technology, but information technology makes it cheaper. Its magnitude is easier to measure than the use of the Internet in interest group mobilization, simply from the tables that are published in Campaigns and Elections magazine. It is a significant phenomenon, and it may be the most significant use of information technology in the political process. Real numbers, however, are once again elusive.

All of that concerns the political process in a formal sense. Let me back up and say a few words about civil society more generally. One important thing that Internet has done, almost subliminally, has been to make much more visible society's processes of collective cognition (Agre 1998b). Most of what happens on the Internet, especially in the tens of thousands of online discussion groups, is that people who have something in common get together to compare notes, answer one another's questions, hash out issues, and share news. In other words, people mostly use the Internet to think together, and they do so on the basis of an extraordinary variety of common interests.

These activities are commonly held to occur in a brand new place called cyberspace that differs qualitatively from the rest of the world. Analytically, however, it is more useful to see online discussion groups as simply one more medium by which those people who have something in common can think together. People already think together by means of conferences, newsletters, professional organizations, and consultants who travel from place to place. A tremendous variety of social mechanisms, both spontaneous and planned, have arisen throughout history to enable people to pool their thinking. The Internet is just one more of those mechanisms, and we cannot evaluate its impact unless we understand its relationship to all of the others.

A good example, and the core example that I use in my courses, is people with cancer. A good case can be made -- this is an area where good research has been done (e.g., Feenberg 1995) -- that the Internet has changed what it means to be sick. In the old days, someone with cancer faced the medical profession more or less as an individual. Now, people who discover that they have cancer are likely to get a modem and join the highly organized community, disease by disease, on the Internet and America Online. As a result, it now makes sense to say that the community of people with cancer is interacting as a group with the community of oncologists. When a community uses the Internet to become organized for the first time, the potential for qualitative change is significant. In other areas, by contrast, professional organizations are already highly developed, and so the potential for qualitative change may be less. These are areas that we lack even the concepts to talk about, much less the numbers.

Real uncertainties aside, the Internet deserves some credit on these counts. Its reputation for incivility is overrated. This reputation derives from our selective attention to those parts of the Internet that are publicly open and visible. Those parts are, almost by definition, less self-regulated than the more closed and private parts. The vast majority of the Internet, in my opinion, is largely peaceable. Problems of information quality on the Internet are probably also exaggerated; at least no conclusions about the matter can be drawn from the small number of anecdotes that have been publicized.

The Internet, in sum, makes visible some important social processes and is changing our awareness of civil society. What is harder is to render a judgment about the magnitudes, quantities, and directions of various changes. Much is made, for example, of the alleged decline in American associational life, the "bowling alone" phenomenon (Putnam 1995). Assuming that the phenomenon actually exists, is the Internet contributing to a reversal of it? We don't know.

One thing, however, is fairly clear: the Internet does not represent a reversion to the days of the Elks Lodge and the world of civic organizations with stable memberships, regular meetings, strong claims on personal identity, and complex rules and traditions. That classical associational world is, if anything, being replaced by a world that is quite different in character. This new world is so hard to evaluate in part precisely because the Internet reaches into so many different facets of life. Many technologies have their effect at one place in the world, so that you can go look and measure and compare and document. The Internet, however, is not like that. The Internet reaches into practically every dimension of social life, and it becomes very hard to reason about.

That is why it is so crucial to be aware of the cultural system of myths and ideas that our society projects onto the technology. It is so hard to get a realistic handle on what people are doing with the technology -- the causes and effects and their magnitudes -- that a vacuum opens up. Into that vacuum pours a whole semi-conscious system of hopes and fears. If we are going to understand the technology then we must first recover a historical awareness of our ideas about our nation and about people and their lives. Once we recover awareness of those ideas, we can begin to see how the ideas are a material force, both in the shaping of technology and the ways that people use the technology in society.


Philip E. Agre, Yesterday's tomorrow, Times Literary Supplement, 3 July 1998a, pages 3-4.

Philip E. Agre, Designing genres for new media, in Steven G. Jones, ed, CyberSociety 2.0: Revisiting CMC and Community, Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1998b.

Bruce Bimber, The Internet and Political Communication in the 1996 Election Season, Research Note, Department of Political Science, UC Santa Barbara, 1997. Available online at

Madelaine Drohan, How the net killed the MAI: Grassroots groups used their own globalization to derail deal, Globe and Mail (Toronto), 29 April 1998.

Peter F. Drucker, The coming of the new organization, Harvard Business Review 66(1), 1988, pages 45-53.

Andrew Feenberg, The online patient meeting, paper delivered at the sixth International Symposium on ALS/MND: Quality of Life Issues, Dublin, October 1995.

Lawrence K. Grossman, The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age, New York: Viking, 1995.

Valtteri Niemi and Ari Renvall, How to prevent buying of votes in computer elections, in Josef Pieprzyk and Reihanah Safavi-Naini, eds, Advances in Cryptology: ASIACRYPT '94, Berlin: Springer, 1994, pages 164-170.

Robert D. Putnam, Bowling alone: America's declining social capital, Journal of Democracy 6(1), 1995, pages 65-78.

Barry Shain, The Myth of American Individualism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.