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Bigger than TV Itself

Former White House press secretary Mike McCurry discusses politics in the Internet age.
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The view from out there

Mike McCurry, a political consultant and member of the board of advisers of Grassroots.com, formerly served as White House press secretary in the Clinton administration. We asked him whether the Internet will drastically change politics, as television did.

We're at the very dawn of the Internet and its role in politics. We're probably at the same point that we were at in the late 1950s when television first began to have an impact. We haven't yet seen a defining moment like the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate, when all of a sudden people were saying, "Boy, that really was a sea change in the way candidates approach the electorate."

That's important to note, because there are some people who expected that the plot would thicken much more rapidly than it has on the Web.

Every new advance in technology has had some noticeable impact on the practice of politics. Take newspapers, for instance. In the 19th century, when newspapers developed around political parties, people became educated about national politics through a partisan-driven press. Then, early in the 20th century, radio began to have a profound impact, which was soon dwarfed by the power of television.

One thing that has happened in the age of televised politics has been the erosion of public confidence in the institutions -- including political parties -- that brought some stability and coherence to politics. As mediating institutions, political parties draw together people from different backgrounds so that they can take collective action. Thanks to the intense personalization of televised politics, a candidate can fine-tune a message and broadcast it directly into every home, bypassing all other filters except the press.

But with the Internet we have an increased opportunity for dialogue, similar to what happened when people were represented by their political parties. People will be able to go to the politicians and have some semblance of a dialogue, saying: "Here's my view on this issue. And what do you think about that issue?"

The changes will be profound -- and they'll revolutionize politics. But it's going to take time. We always overestimate the short-term impact of technology, while we underestimate its long-term impact. Yet what we're talking about with the Internet is a change of astronomical proportions. It reinvents the relationship between those who elect and those who govern.

Some of the things that we ordinarily do now through various levels of government -- renewing a driver's license or taking out a library card, for instance -- we'll start doing online. That will probably improve the quality of citizenship. Maybe someday we'll have people voting online.

People will increasingly use the Internet to organize themselves for taking collective action. Such efforts could include working on a local issue, like getting a new stop sign put up at an intersection, say, or even electing members of Congress, governors, and perhaps a president.

In a weird way, it was the Internet that helped bring together in Seattle the diverse groups that demonstrated against the World Trade Organization. And what happened in Seattle may be a forerunner of what conceivably could happen as people take more direct collective action.

Meanwhile, it's amazing to me how few publishers and media executives recognize how quickly their own line of business is changing. The journalism of the future will demand partnerships that take advantage of streaming video and audio, and that provide round-the-clock, online news coverage.

We're going to have to create new journalistic standards to go along with all that. A great journalist can't be on call 24 hours a day, filing stories. So in the Internet future, speed will be less important than other attributes, including accuracy.

But as enthusiastic and optimistic as I am about the Internet's impact on politics, I also think that politicians will have to do a better job of addressing the issues, and citizens will have to pay attention and be alert. There's nothing that any technology can do that will force that type of change. But it can make the process easier. -- From an interview with Roger Fillion


For more insight on the current state of small business, see The View From Out There.


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