Is the Digital Age Good
or is the Digital Age Bad
for American Democracy?
Part A: Overview and statistics.
The Internet explosion began in 1995 with the introduction of Microsoft Corporation’s Windows 95, and its Internet Explorer. Before this historical watershed the Internet was a sparsely populated domain composed mainly of academics, technophiles and even some political activists.[i] World-wide in December 1995 there were about 16 million users of the Internet [ii] out of a global population of over 4.5 billion (~.0036 %). Just 7 years later in December 2001 a Neilson/NetRatings survey of the largest 22 industrial nations shows at least 422.4 million Earthlings to be online,[iii] (nearly 10% of the world population). About 140 million of these users are in the United States, with 54% of the total American population connecting to the web [iv] at home, work or school.
The rapid diffusion of the Internet and other digital communication devices compared to the technological advances of other eras is staggering. Telegraph, telephones, radio, television and faxing, all spread into the masses at much slower paces. In 1930, United States census figures found the telephone was in only 40% of American households[v], this more than four decades after its invention.[vi]
The Digital Age has brought us the Internet, cell-phones, personal digital assistants [PDA’s] and an array of other wireless communication devices, which together have fundamentally changed the way much of the human race communicates. Today it is common to see a people fully hooked-up ---with cellphone, e-mail pager, and wireless laptop computer--- communicating away while on an Amtrak train or in a local Starbucks. [vii] It all makes (comic-book detective) Dick Tracy’s telephone-wristwatch look primitive by comparison. We may not have closed the last millennium with colonies on the moon (as many predicted during the space race of the 1960’s), but with the new century the Digital Age allows people instant communication to someone (or some group), through any various means portable media, at will, anytime, anywhere. (Of course as long as the person/people on the other end has a compatible device.[viii]) And all this communicating can be accomplished in volume at an affordable cost. Has this not always been the “holy grail” of the techno-communications industry since early human history? [ix]
Armed simply with laptop computer a person can simultaneously surf the web, talk on the phone ---(as many modern computers have a telephone built in)--- send hundreds of faxes, e-mail thousands (--if not millions--) and do it all without leaving the bed of a hotel room. E-mail has become the cheapest and easiest way ever to send mass communication with the lowest going rate for executing one million e-mails at only $200,[x] making e-mail the first tool of mass communication that is readily and cheaply accessible to the masses. Clearly the media of the Internet and Digital Communications has enormous potential as both a means of political communication and a source of political power and influence. The question is: How will this potential be realized?
[i] During the second half of the 1980’s, I was on staff at the global environmental organization Greenpeace’s New York City office (www.greenpeace.org). The organization then had it’s own early Internet portal called GREENLINK. Every day after punching in several dozen DOS keyboard commands ---(back then a mouse was only a rodent)-- we printed out Greenpeace’s issue briefings and news releases from around the globe using a dot-matrix printer. Seems like ancient history now.
[ii] Gromov , Gregory R. History of Internet and WWW: The Roads and Crossroads of Internet History
Available @: http://www.netvalley.com/intvalstat.html and last accessed July 3, 2002.
Accessed Feb 5 2002 @ http://www.msnbc.com/news/699335.asp?0na=x2249150-
(Link not currently active)
[v] United States Census Bureau @ http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/housing/census/historic/phone.html Last accessed June 15, 2002
[vi] Though television's invention was in 1929 it remained commercially dormant for nearly twenty years; until it exploded with an equally astounding place from 1948-1954. Windows and Internet Explorer exploded in use shortly after their invention.
Last accessed August 21, 2002@ http://www.msnbc.com/news/797121.asp?0na=x225L171-
[viii] It is possible today for different Digital media to be in use by the communicating parties. For example: I can use my computer to send a e-mail to someone’s e-mail pager. I can also use my email portal to send and receive faxes and I can get e-mail verbally read to me by an electronically generated voice on my cellphone.
[ix] Davis, Richard: The Web Of Politics: The Internet’s Impact on the American Political System. Oxford University Press. Copyright 1999. ISBN: 0-19-511485-X
See pages 28-29 for a brief overview this topic from a political-historical prospective.
[x] Orr, Andrea: Innocent 'Hello' Sells Hot Sex on the Internet.
April 27 2002 , Reuters. Accessed April 28 2002 @ http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&ncid=581&e=2&cid=581&u=/nm/20020427/tc_nm/column_nettrends_dc_26 [Link not currently active]