One was an 18th century leader of the Enlightenment, champion of democracy and individual rights, American founding father and president. The other was a 20th century psychologist, computer scientist and visionary of the powerful promise of computer networks. And for me, like bookends, they provide the supporting beliefs that have formed the basis of my thinking about the promise of the potential impact of the Internet on politics. The metaphorical shelf of books that their thinking supports has grown very large over the last 20 years, during which time the Internet has exploded into widespread use, and in doing so has developed and demonstrated tremendous impacts. Exploring the breadth of that shelf is more than can be tackled in a single blog post. Instead, I want to write just a bit about the thinking of these two visionary Americans, and their specific words that have meant so much to me.
The idea on which Lick’s worldview pivoted was that technological progress would save humanity. The political process was a favorite example of his. In a McLuhanesque view of the power of electronic media, Lick saw a future in which, thanks in large part to the reach of computers, most citizens would be “informed about, and interested in, and involved in, the process of government.” He imagined what he called “home computer consoles” and television sets linked together in a massive network. “The political process,” he wrote, “would essentially be a giant teleconference, and a campaign would be a months-long series of communications among candidates, propagandists, commentators, political action groups, and voters. The key is the self-motivating exhilaration that accompanies truly effective interaction with information through a good console and a good network to a good computer.”
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