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Participatory Vs. Representative Democracy

SEVERAL OF THE ARTICLES IN the January 2001 Communications are linked by the same implicit proposition: Direct (participatory, "quick") democracy is a better form of government than representative democracy. Information and communication technology (ICT) can facilitate direct democracy. Therefore ICT should be used to realize direct democracy.

But before embarking on an ICT-enabled, direct-democracy implementation path, we should determine whether we are justified in accepting the premise that direct democracy improves government. Guest editor Ave Gronlund (p. 22) dismisses this issue with an appeal to "a more inclusive role of e-democracy" in which "formal rule by the people" is required, and "needs to be both effective and efficient." Regardless of whether governing qualifies as "formal rule by the people" or inclusive, effective, and efficient, it is no benefit if the government is tyrannical.

Watson and Mundy (p. 27) insist efficient government is a fundamental principle of democracy that neutralizes demagogues and populists. We can all applaud transaction cost reductions, but there is no reason to believe saving money will reduce a demagogue's appeal.

Becker (p. 29) supposes there may come a time when too much (participatory) democracy is reached, though this has never happened. How then did the majority in a participatory democracy elect Hitler?

Snellen (p. 45) dismisses representative government as "second best, at best." This is followed by the assertion that "people prefer direct democratic arrangement" and the accusation that the "general" interests are not served by representation because "partisan" interests prevail. In direct democracy, the majority rules. Are "general" interests defined as "anything" a majority decides? What prevents the majority from depriving the minority of its natural rights? Perhaps an increase in participatory democracy can be consistent with the rule of law--protecting minority rights and avoiding tyranny--but the absence of provisions to ensure these essential protections should prevent us from embracing the vehicle of our own destruction.

Finally, I must question Gronlund's quote of Castell: "[T]he medium has become so comprehensive, so diversified, so malleable that it absorbs in the same multimedia the whole of human experience, past, present, and future." Without any indication of hyperbole, this is given as a reason political actors must play by the rules of the medium. Even if the absurd premise that the whole of human experience past and present has been absorbed by multimedia is accepted, how is it that the future has also been absorbed?


Why Store Everything?

I CANNOT FATHOM WHY SOME one would want to store everything, as Gordon Bell is trying to do ("A Digital Store," Jan. 2001, p. 86). If you store everything, you are refraining from making a value judgement as to what is important. Periodically, I examine both my digital and material possessions to determine what I need for professional, personal, or sentimental reasons, and what can be disposed of.

I keep my digital life simple by adhering as far as possible to "primitive" formats, though I prefer to call them portable and nonproprietary. Five textbooks I wrote during the past decade take up less than 1.4MB as zipped LaTeX files. They can be stored cheaply on one diskette, a CD or servers, and software, both open and commercial, is widely available for many platforms. Delicacy prevents me from recounting the travails we suffer when documents in version X of an extremely popular commercial word processor can't be read by version Y.

MOTI BEN-ARI Rehovot, Israel

Emulex Hoax

BRUCE SCHNEIER'S STATEMENT, "The people who lost the most in the Emulex hoax were the ones with preprogrammed sell orders" ("Semantic Network Attacks," Dec. 2000, p. 168), caused me to wonder if the author himself was not guilty of the topic of his column. Was this more a hypothesis on his part or was it just an unchecked perpetuation of something someone else reported. After all, how could he really know how much the investors lost without knowing when they bought?

I decided to take a quick look at Emulex's performance and found another surprise. Schneier wrote that the 61% drop occurred after an August 25, 2000 press release. According to the charts at, the drop happened closer to March 25, 2000. Further, the stock had traded in the $40s as late as October 1999. Thus, anyone who bought the stock before October 1999, then sold it as it spiraled down, did not lose any money at all, but gained instead.

I understand and agree with the general theme of Schneier's column. However, as he points out, misinformation is not a new problem.

MATT WEST Greenville, SC
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Publication:Communications of the ACM
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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Next Article:Correction.

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