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[techbooks] REVIEW: "Digital Democracy", Cynthia J. Alexander/Leslie A. Pal

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  • Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Tr
    BKDGTLDM.RVW 990326 Digital Democracy , Cynthia J. Alexander/Leslie A. Pal, 1998, 0-19-541359-8, U$26.50 %E Cynthia J. Alexander %E Leslie A. Pal %C
    Message 1 of 1 , May 18, 1999
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      BKDGTLDM.RVW 990326

      "Digital Democracy", Cynthia J. Alexander/Leslie A. Pal, 1998,
      0-19-541359-8, U$26.50
      %E Cynthia J. Alexander
      %E Leslie A. Pal
      %C 70 Wynford Drive, Don Mills, Ontario M3C 1J9
      %D 1998
      %G 0-19-541359-8
      %I Oxford University Press
      %O U$26.50 212-679-7300
      %P 237 p.
      %T "Digital Democracy: Policy and Politics in the Wired World"

      As a techie, I more comfortable with the "hard" sciences with provable
      outcomes, such as the "running code" (1) of the Internet. However, as
      one interested in the social aspects of the net, I have to respect the
      softer sciences, since without "rough consensus" (2) there would be
      neither protocol standards, nor the real heart of the communications
      that goes on. As Dimwiddy and Bunkum state (3), though, PoliSci is so
      soft as to be positively mushy.

      Right from the beginning (4) the text is heavily larded with
      footnotes, which sometimes threaten to overpower the essays they are
      supposed to support (5). Oddly, though, these footnotes do not give
      any impression of the strength of the material in the book, quite the
      contrary. Instead, they tend to lend credence to the statement that
      94.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot (6). The content of
      the book tends to be strangely unformed, with statements ranging
      between unsupported bombast that we are simply assumed to accept, to
      citations of studies without much discussion of relevance or validity.

      After an introduction, there is a piece on "social forces in the
      hypermedia environment" that seems to want to talk about economics, a
      discussion of national security, and something looking at the national
      or global information infrastructure. None of these pieces, and,
      indeed, nothing in the book, seems to have any real idea of the
      technology involved, or the implications of the technology. A look at
      women on the net states that "Few will argue the impact of written
      language or--many centuries later--the printing press in shaping new
      societies" (7) while blithely ignoring the fact that we have very
      little idea of what those impacts might have been. Leslie Pal's own
      contribution, examining the outcry over the Communications Decency
      Act, seems to have the greatest understanding of modern communications
      systems, but even there (8) does not comprehend that the technical
      aspects of "flooding" algorithms and dynamic rerouting were what
      forced commercial services to lobby against the bill.

      The paper on teledemocracy bemoans the fact that lack of a touch tone
      phone disenfranchises a massive 5% of the population (9), while
      ignoring as insignificant a 12% disparity in polling results (10).
      His lauding of Ted White's telephone polling (11) was of particular
      interest to me, since I live in White's riding and a) didn't get a
      pin, b) could have reproduced White's polling system using local
      technology at far lower cost to both constituents and the government

      There is a pedestrian piece on intellectual property. Then there is
      the mandatory article on pornography. (Can we have a Rimm shot?
      Thank you.) The Rimm "study" (13), and another equally suspect,
      categorize a bunch of feelthy peechers, and we are then told that
      there is a clear benefit for regulation of pornography (14).

      The essay on privacy takes for granted that you cannot have freedom
      without privacy (15), ignoring items like David Brin's "The
      Transparent Society" which proposes a remarkably free environment
      almost completely devoid of privacy (16). The article also decries
      identification numbers of all types, and then goes on (17) to laud
      public key encryption, seemingly unaware that a public key is a

      Neither the discussion of health care nor that of indigenous people
      really looks at social aspects of the technology.

      This seems to be my week for dumping on compatriots (18). However, my
      rabid nationalism does not extend so far as to defend those resident
      in my country when they don't know what they are talking about, and
      this book seems to be almost completely devoid of experience of the
      technology under examination.

      (1) Dave Clark (of MIT), IETF Conference, 1992
      (2) ibid
      (3) I made them up, of course.
      (4) Well, I suppose not; there are no footnotes in the
      acknowledgement; but the first one comes in the second paragraph of
      the preface on page xii.
      (5) They never actually do.
      (6) This figure is embedded in one of my brother's sigblocks: I think
      he made it up.
      (7) p. 88
      (8) p. 111
      (9) p. 140
      (10) p. 135
      (11) p. 136
      (12) White used Maritime T&T, had to spend $11,000 setting up a single
      poll, and it cost people $1.95 per time to vote. A PC based system
      could have, at the time, been established for about $5,000 altogether,
      and could have been reused at any time for further polling.
      (13) lucky, eh?
      (14) p. 176. I'm not exactly on the side of pornography, but there
      are a few steps missing in the proof, here.
      (15) p. 181
      (16) cf. BKTRASOC.RVW
      (17) p. 187
      (18) See also "Roadkill on the Information Highway" (BKRKOTIH.RVW)

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 1999 BKDGTLDM.RVW 990326

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