Computing Applications

Forum: Participatory Vs. Representative Democracy

  1. Participatory Vs. Representative Democracy
  2. Why Store Everything?
  3. Emulex Hoax
  4. Correction
  5. Author

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 Åve Grönlund (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 Grönlund’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?

Thomas Tiahrt
Wakonda, SD

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Why Store Everything?

I cannot fathom why someone 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

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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 Quote.com, 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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In our article ("Gauging the Risks of Internet Elections," Jan. 2001, p. 73), Deborah Phillips and I referred to the U.S. military’s pilot Internet voting project in the November 2000 election. According to the Pentagon’s spokesperson, Glenn Flood, as quoted in the New York Times, the project was only going to allow Internet voting from "virus-free" machines at military bases. Unfortunately, this is not what occurred.

Although the Federal Voting Assistance Program, which administered the project, has not issued its final report, it made a presentation on the project in Atlanta on January 24 of this year at a meeting of the Georgia Electronic Commerce Association. Deborah Phillips and I were surprised to learn that although the FVAP tested the security of the servers involved in the project, it allowed military personnel to vote from home, and workstations not tested for viruses were, in fact, outside the security perimeter. Although the FVAP had its testers assume the role of hackers and attempt to penetrate its server and the servers of the participating election jurisdictions in the U.S. (unsuccessfully), it did not have its testers attempt to penetrate the computers actually used by the voters.

Obviously, the FVAP tested only half of the security of its Internet voting project, and its relative success should not be seen as an indication that remote Internet voting is safe. The FVAP missed a golden opportunity to check the viability and ease with which viruses could have been planted on the computers of the 84 individuals who actually voted in the project. This could have been accomplished with their permission and without actually interfering with their votes.

Hans A. von Spakovsky
Arlington, VA
Deborah Phillips
Atlanta, GA

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