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PERSPECTIVE ON TECHNOLOGY

Politics Unswayed by 'Net Generation'

Onliners are a sophisticated and aloof minority; 'free' TV will remain the medium of choice for now.

May 25, 1997|EDWIN DIAMOND and ROBERT SILVERMAN | Edwin Diamond teaches at NYU. Robert Silverman has covered new media for national magazines. This article is adapted from their book, "White House to Your House: Media and Politics in Virtual America" (MIT Press, 1997)

Cyber-hypsters assure us that soon we'll all be online. But it's not happening as far as political power is concerned. During the 1996 campaign, to be sure, election-night traffic at the Web sites operated by news organizations was so heavy, with some sites registering five times as many hits as usual, that many would-be users couldn't log on: Internet gridlock. A frustrated user sent a plea via e-mail to Vice President Al Gore, the administration's chief information superhighway proponent: "Al, send more servers!"

But political communication on the Internet requires something more than hardware. It needs engaged citizens. The heavy traffic on Nov. 5 only served to show that the great romance with politics on the Net has been more like a one-night stand. And nothing since suggests that things will be any different the next time around.

For all the talk about the great, empowering, all-encompassing Internet world, close to 80% of the voting population is not online. Even by high-end estimates, at most four in every 10 American homes are equipped with computers today; only about half of these have modems and Internet accounts. Compare this relatively modest segment of the population to the 99 out of 100 U.S. households with at least one TV set, turned on an average of six hours a day. On any given evening, then, 140 million Americans gather around TV sets, while perhaps 5 million to 10 million are in front of computer screens.

Obviously, these numbers are changing as more people log on. The percentage of women online has been steadily increasing. Anyone who spends any time around younger Americans understands how they've grown accustomed to getting information online. Trade magazines regularly sing the praises of the under-18 Net generation, said to be ready to turn away from TV to online goods and services.

Perhaps some day. But the place to sell a product or a politician in the last years of the 20th century remains the television screen.

The Clinton, Dole and Perot national committees, the statewide campaigns for the races for governor and U.S. senator and for 435 representatives, together with private-interest groups such as the AFL-CIO and business PACs, spent an estimated $1.5 billion during the 1996 campaign. Perhaps two-thirds of that money went to purchase TV and radio time for candidates and 30-second PAC spots. By contrast, the amount spent on Internet campaigning never rose above $6 million, political pennies.

True enough, online technologies provide a chance for the passive watcher to become an active, well-informed participant. It's engaging, and fun with the right equipment. But it can also be tedious, time-consuming and expensive, at least compared to "free" TV. Of course, that will change, too; wider bandwidth, faster processing and better compression rates will help speed messages, both text and full-motion video, to end users.

Beyond the hardware, though, the social culture of the Internet will change slowly. New-media enthusiasts, led by terminally hip magazines like Wired, vaporize about the "community" of onliners. In the common, self-regarding description, users are young, educated, affluent, libertarian, worldly, rational, technologically sophisticated, state-of-the-art equipped. They are, says one booster, "blissfully disconnected from conventional political organizations .J.J. and narrow labels like liberal or conservative." Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, Wired observes, "are talking to us, or about us"--and we're proud of it.

This feeling of being above it all, however, comes with a price. Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas in Austin, is as much a Net user as the next onliner. But his fellow travelers have disappointed him. The Communication Decency Act passed by Congress in 1996, for example, is a wholly misguided attempt to censor speech in cyberspace (the Supreme Court is considering the measure's constitutionality). Net users flamed about it, but their "terabytes of anger and rebellion," in Chapman's words, didn't prevent the bill's passage by near-unanimous votes or its signing by President Clinton--or its invisibility as an issue in the primaries and fall campaign.

By way of contrast to the technologically hip and politically impotent netizenry, consider the Christian Coalition. This fundamentalist group, repository of the political hopes of the televangelist Pat Robertson and fronted until last month by the mediagenic Ralph Reed, uses e-mail and the Web effectively and puts prodigious energy into grass-roots organizing and electing sympathetic officials. The coalition has effectively made the Republican Party its home, capturing the attention and sometimes the allegiance of GOP leaders.

Across the political divide, the Net generation boasts of its purity. It has no political home and is far from creating one. Onliners have become a true postmodern demographic, so edgy and cool that they've edged themselves out into the cold. But then they'll always have 24-hour access to the box scores.

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