SOLOMON: Can "E-Government" Bring Us Point-and-Click Democracy?

There's a slick new term surfing its way into the mass media. "E-government."

Al Gore has given it a big shove forward with a major campaign speech. "The power of government," he proclaimed, "should not be locked away in Washington, but put at your service -- no further than your keyboard." Gore promised online access to almost every government service by 2003: "Together, we will transform America's collection of ramshackle bureaucracies into an e-government that works for every American."

Many citizens would be glad to see the Internet streamline their dealings with federal agencies. But we're now hearing claims that go way beyond matters of efficiency -- to conflate convenience and democracy. "You should not have to wait in line to communicate with your self-government," Gore said in his June 5 speech, evoking visions of "a new system of e-government."

The vice president correctly figured on a spate of respectful news stories when he declared that his plans for booting up an "Information Age government" amount to "a second American revolution." But let's get a grip. These days, even accounting for customary political hyperbole, the rhetoric about e-government is somewhere between exaggerated and absurd.

No matter how much officeholders vow to level the digital playing field, the barriers will loom much higher for some than for others. Ability to take part in government should not be determined by economic resources. Imbalances in access to state-of-the-art computers and the latest software just exacerbate the kind of chronic inequities that the Internet supposedly alleviates.

The digital divide is far from the only problem with the e-government boom. While Gore asserts that it will bring remedies to "an electorate that is too often alienated and often feels voiceless in a system corroded by special interests and powerless to make change," the whole idea of online government is a cyber-placebo. The notion that e-government gives power to the powerless is nice -- but delusional.

No matter how dazzling, technology doesn't empower people. People can empower themselves. And they remain supplicants to centralized economic and political power if they rely on sitting in front of screens, downloading government documents and filling out forms on official websites.

As a matter of fact, the prevailing concepts of e-government are fully compatible with a wide variety of regimes that have little or no use for democratic decision-making.

Four days before Gore's big e-government speech, he announced that Jordan will become the thirteenth nation to participate in the Clinton administration's Internet for Economic Development initiative -- which aims to "foster the development of e-government." Jordan's rulers, led by King Abdullah, are moving to integrate the trappings of e-government into their authoritarian monarchy.

One of the charter members of the American initiative for e-government is Egypt, which continues to commit serious human rights abuses. According to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the press laws in Egypt are "draconian."

Or consider Singapore, where the government is so arbitrary and repressive that it has maintained a ban on chewing gum since 1992. As the country's Straits Times newspaper noted recently, "anyone caught importing, manufacturing or selling chewing gum can be fined" -- up to $5,800.

The defense minister of Singapore, Tony Tan, cheerily boasted on June 6: "We have begun the process of transforming ourselves into an e-government." He did not mention any plans to lift the national ban on gum, which Premier Goh Chok Tong describes as necessary for the smooth functioning of Singapore's transit system: "There were urchins who put the chewing gum where doors open, holding back the schedules."

For autocrats who don't want to gum up the works with messy liberties, "e-government" can provide a sheen of ultra-modernity without disrupting basic power relations. Singapore officials plan to spend $872 million for e-government during the next three years. Who knows, the program may even help to keep the subway trains running on time.

In a country such as Singapore or Egypt, the e-government pretensions are likely to be transparent. In the United States, the pronouncements of politicians and media commentators are apt to encounter credulous enthusiasm when we confuse convenience with democracy -- and technical advances with civic ones.

Point-and-click ersatz democracy may be perfect for a governance system tacitly predicated on illusions of choice. And if it all seems "interactive," so much the better.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His latest book is "The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media."

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