He is teaching courses at Davidson in news writing and 20th century Southern politics. The following is a transcript of his remarks on "Democracy and Technology."
My thoughts turn to two men, who were life-long friends and who made it possible, in one way or another, for me to be here tonight.
The first is Jim Batten. I am proud to hold this semester's professorship in public policy named for him, delighted, too, to have an opportunity to teach your bright students at Davidson College. Jim Batten was a reporter and editor, as well as the chief executive of a chain of newspapers. He was a leader in the field of journalism to which I devoted most of my career. But tonight I want to remember him as a civic leader, as a community builder. To Jim Batten, it was important that a community not only be prosperous but also inclusive, just, humane.
The second is George Autry, who served for 30 years as president of MDC Inc., the nonprofit research firm in Chapel Hill, on whose board Jim Batten once served. George Autry collected newspaper folks as friends and colleagues. Jim Batten and I were friends of George. George Autry gave me an uncommon opportunity to remove myself from daily journalism, to think more deeply about the South and its condition and prospects, to apply my knowledge in new arenas.
My friend George died a year ago. In his last prepared speech, he wrote an eloquent, haunting paragraph to argue that the human-relations issues now confronting the South go beyond its historic black-white divide, that an insidious situation had arisen as society increasingly fragments into cultural enclaves.
Those cultural enclaves - he wrote - are our new communities. We find them in our segregated churches, our professional associations, civic clubs and chat rooms. We don't live in the old communities that de Tocqueville wrote about anymore. We just sleep there. The old community has been undermined by the automobile which carried us away, TV and air-conditioning which drove us inside, the two-earner family that wears us out, and now the computer that connects us to the next country and isolates us from next door.
This lecture is a reflection on a fundamental concern of both Jim Batten and George Autry - a reflection on the need for community building in an age of rapidly accelerating technological change.
When I need some carrying-around cash in my wallet, I stop in at the nearest Wachovia bank branch and visit a machine with a green- or blue-tinted screen. I put in a plastic card, and the machine begins by asking me if I want to do my banking in English or Spanish.
Next I have to remember my four-digit access code. It is one of many numerical and alphabetical codes with which modern life taxes our short-term memory: a code for my Davidson voice mail, a code to work the copying machine (as often as not, the device tells me that it's disallowed), a code for my UNC voice mail, a code to enter the Davidson computer system, a code to enter AOL from my home computer, a code for making a long-distance telephone call. Enough of that digression.
Punch a few buttons, listen to a few beeping tones, and the Wachovia machine delivers to me real green money - as well as a receipt with my new checking account balance and a warning not to forget the plastic card.
Once upon a time, when I was an undergraduate, registering for a semester's classes meant standing in long lines, hoping that the courses you wanted wouldn't be closed before your turn. Now to register, my students are Carolina pick up a telephone, dial into "Caro-line'' and they sign up for classes from their dorm rooms or their homes. Davidson, I'm told, has a telephone system for changing classes.
And yet on May 2, when I will show up at E.C. Brooks Elementary School, where I will cast a ballot in the North Carolina primaries, the routine will go like this. First, I walk up and announce my name to a woman who will look it up on a precinct roll printout. Then she will use an old-fashioned No. 2 lead pencil to fill out a form, which I am to take to another woman at the next table who will hand me a ballot.
The names of the candidates will be printed on a long sheet of stiff paper. I will be directed to walk across the room to a group of small, plastic cubicle-like stands, which have an ink pen tied onto a string. With the pen, I am to draw a line in the space between two printed arrows next to the names of the candidates for whom I want to vote.
A few days ago, I saw on television the new president of Russia place his paper ballot into the slot in a ballot box. In my case, I will insert the ballot into a counting machine, which will snatch it from my hand and record my votes.
My question is this: If Wachovia will give me real money from an electronic machine and if first-rate institutions of higher education will conduct the serious business of enrolling students into classes over a telephone line, why am I voting by the 18th and 19th Century method of paper ballot? Yes, my vote is counted by machine, not by a human eye, as in Russia, but the process still suggests that our democracy hasn't kept pace with our technology.
Our system of voting has to get in step - or else our democracy will come to be seen by more of our citizens as old-fashioned, hopelessly out-of-date, increasingly irrelevant.
Technologically speaking, it shouldn't be too difficult to allow voters to cast their ballots through the telephones or over the Internet - without having to leave their homes or offices, without having to dash through the rain into the fire station or the school library. Last month, nearly 40,000 votes were cast over the Internet in the Arizona Democratic primary. And President Clinton has asked the National Science Foundation for an assessment of Internet voting.
Other adaptations and experimentation are already in process.
No self-respecting candidate for president, Congress or governor goes without a web site these days. With a few clicks of the mouse, you can find copies of position papers, send in a contribution and even watch 30-second TV spots. Through these web sites, my students read, analyze and write about candidates' speeches that just five years ago would not have been available to them so readily.
Through easily accessible web sites, you can find out what individuals and interest groups are contributing to which candidates. And you can exchange information and opinions, whether sound or ill-formed, with other citizens through email or interactive sites.
Our governments are increasingly adopting practices made possible by new technology. Food stamps have shifted from coupons to debit cards. You can file your tax returns electronically. In the near future, businesses will not be able to provide goods and services to the federal government unless they have electronic capability for billing and such.
The American Constitution, of course, was written in an agrarian age, before the automobile, before radio, before television, before today's wired world. This is not, of course, the first moment in history in which new technology has brought about economic and cultural changes - and affected our democracy as well.
History as usual teaches. History suggests that an advance in technology can lead to an advance in democracy - but technology can also do damage. Take television, for instance.
Through television, Americans shared, as a people, in events of grandeur and tragedy. They watched brave men walk on the moon, and they saw a space shuttle with a teacher aboard disintegrate against a bright blue sky. They were spell-bound by the funeral of an assassinated president, and many were agitated by riots in big cities and protests on college campuses. Television showed us Democrats and Republicans assembled in their presidential-year conventions, and now we can watch Democrats and Republicans debating in the chambers of the House and the Senate.
At the same time, television gave Americans access - or at least the illusion of access - to the personalities of the leaders of our government. No longer did a voter have to rely on the word of a precinct chairman; he could see a candidate for himself. The people who invented television and developed its content did not set out to weaken political parties, but television surely contributed to their destabilization.
Television contributed immensely to racial change in the American South. The civil rights movement, to be sure, took root in Southern soil and bore fruit in Congress and in the courts through the toil of courageous black Americans and their white allies. Television helped their cause by exposing the ugliness of Southern racism - and the poverty that racism engendered.
The civil rights movement did more than liberate blacks from the shackles of Jim Crow - although that in itself is a considerable achievement. The dissolution of Jim Crow also liberated the South to make money, lots of it. Along with air conditioning and public and private investment, it liberated the South economically. Now the South participates in - and in certain of its metropolitan areas, even leads - today's age of information technology.
If television has contributed to a diminishing of sectional division in the United States, it has lately contributed to another kind of fractionalization. With the introduction of cable and satellite technology, television has transitioned from a handful of stations in each city served by national networks into a multiplicity of channels. While choice has widened, public debate has narrowed. Instead of showing political conventions from gavel to gavel, for example, the big networks leave that task to the C-SPAN. Cable has given rise to "yell television,'' which features debate that is more heat than light.
Lest I be accused of being a newspaper-guy making an assault only on television, let me also say that technology has intruded upon - and to a significant extent weakened - news judgment in newspapers. Advances in cameras, computers and printing technology now allow newspapers to print brilliant - in more than one sense of that word - photographs. Newspapers do a much better job today than ever in accompanying news stories with maps and illustrative graphics. And yet, many newspapers now select their center-piece pictures for the front pages on their merits as photograph, not necessarily on their merits as news. There are fewer stories these days on front pages, less emphasis on the front page as a guide to the most important news of the day, and more space devoted to attention-catching packages of photographs and news features.
Americans have become enthralled with the potentialities of the new information technologies. Just look at the gyrations of Nasdaq, and the rage of buy and sell stock on-line. Analyses of the "new economy'' and of "globalization'' abound. Similarly, in the academy, professors and administrators are debating each other over distance learning, courses offered online or on video disks, and watching warily the development of competitors that do not feature the traditional classrooms within a contained campus.
Too few of us, however, are thinking about how the new technologies will influence our democracy. Too few are worrying about how to ensure that our form of government endures - a government fashioned around debate and deliberation, a government in which people elect a chief executive and representatives into a system of checks and balances.
Benjamin Barber of Rutgers is among those few. "If democracy is to benefit from technology then, we must start not with technology but with politics,'' Barber writes in his collection of essays titled "A Passion for Democracy.''
"Democracy can be reinforced by technology and it can be corrupted by technology,'' Barber says, "but democracy's survival depends on human not machine inspiration.''
Do we want, asks Barber, a plebiscite-style democracy, with Americans at home in front of a screen making consumer choices with one set of clicks and voting on issues of public policy with another series of clicks, a democracy subject to majorities of the moment? Or do we want a deliberative, representative democracy, in which issues are resolved through a clash of ideas, debate and deliberation, in which voters take their roles as citizens, as distinct from consumers, seriously?
"Unless we are clear about what democracy means to us,'' says Barber, "and what kind of democracy we envision, technology is as likely to stunt as to enhance the civic polity.''
For my part, I don't want to say the sky-is-falling, democracy is in peril - but I do think that we need to think and discuss technology and democracy at something approaching the intensity at which we think and discuss technology and education, technology and shopping, technology and jobs.
A few moments ago, I suggested that we bring our system of casting ballots into the 21st Century. We can begin to imagine some of the consequences were we have such a system in place, voting through computer or telephone hook-ups. But, how do we do that and still preserve and enhance representative democracy? We've got to start thinking this through.
If we allow voting-at-home, the concept of "turn-out'' will have lost its meaning. At-home, over-the-wire voting suggests that you don't have to turn out to cast a ballot. Voting will have become more of private and less of a public act.
Of course, we will have to have some voting stations for those citizens who cannot afford or otherwise do not have access to machines that connect through the Internet to vote-counting central. But, just as Wachovia allows me to bank at any of its branches, it will be possible to vote without going to your own precinct station.
Technology may make precincts irrelevant. Similarly, technology may make it practically impossible to take an election-day exit poll. Now some of you may rejoice in being liberated from the affliction of the TV networks using exit polls in the race to project the winner of this state, then that state - a race usually won by a matter of minutes, or even seconds.
But elections don't tell us only who won or lost. They also tell us something about ourselves as a people. When votes are tallied by precincts, we learn something important about our neighborhoods, and about alliances and differences among neighborhoods in our cities and states.
An exit poll isn't only useful for projecting elections. Because exit polls are surveys of actual voters who have just cast their ballots, they are our most nearly accurate of polls --- and they provide invaluable information on the demography of an election, they provide a statistical portrait of the electorate. We learn about how the component parts of our town, county, city, state or nation voted, and the newly elected enter public office with an understanding of the coalition that put them there, and of the people they will have to win over to govern effectively.
To connect to the ballot-central server, voters will need an ID number and/or an access code - another set of numbers to tax the brain. We could, of course, have citizens provide information about themselves when they register to vote and receive their ID codes - and we could get exit-poll-type information and more in the wake of an election. But already many Americans are complaining - unjustly, in my view - about the Census long form, and privacy is among the major issues raised by the e-economy.
Another set of issues with which we must grapple has to do with technology, democracy and place. When I arrived at Davidson in January, I was still involved in the work of the Rural Prosperity Task Force. That's the panel chaired by Erskine Bowles, the former White House chief of staff, who was appointed by Governor Hunt. I was on the task force steering committee. Among its recommendations, the task force pointed North Carolina toward a process of ensuring that its rural people, businesses and communities are fully connected to the e-economy.
On several occasions during our deliberations, discussion turned to the need for rural counties to work together as regions. The new economy and new technology do not respect old political boundaries drawn two centuries ago. More than once, I found myself saying aloud: if North Carolina continues to have the same 100 counties 50 years from now as we have today, in some sense we will have failed.
But I also acknowledge that I've had some second thoughts. We can't think about rearranging counties only in terms of economic efficiencies; we've also got to think about what it means for our democracy. We may have no choice but to alter old arrangements, but we've got to build into our thinking a deep concern for preserving and extending democracy.
From his vantage point in Austin, Texas, my friend Bill Bishop has been writing recently about how the new technology-driven economy is giving rise to a set of powerful city-regions.
"These city-regions are now the most important economy entities on the globe,'' Bishop wrote in thought-provoking series of articles for the Austin American-Statesmen.
"Twenty-five years from now, there will be 600 cities of more than 1 million. Forty cities will number more than 10 million. The world is becoming a mosaic of cities that exist above and beyond the mere geography of state or nation.''
And Bishop quotes former Austin city manager Camille Barnett as saying, "We don't have good ways to lead and govern these regions. It is the governance issue of this century.''
Well, I suspect, some kind of governance will indeed emerge. Certainly the economically powerful have it within their means to impose an order to enable their companies to do business. The question is, to what extent will we continue to choose leadership through election by the people? Whether in rural regions or city-regions, to what extent will we have local elected school boards and other policy-making bodies with effective power to convert the public's will into action?
Let's peel away another layer and think about this further. Our democracy has always had a connection to "place.'' We elect representatives from definable geographical areas, because we have associated place with such things as economic or ethnic interests.
Last week, Michael Elliott published his farewell column as editor of Newsweek International. The headline was "Globalization is Good for You." But within the column, Elliott raised what he called a "profoundly disquieting'' question: In a world of jet travel and the Internet, with friends and family spread all over the planet, where do we belong? Where is home?''
Two months ago, researchers at Stanford University released their findings from a survey on the societal influence of the Internet. The survey found that 55 percent of Americans have access to the Internet, with 36 percent of those saying they are online at least five hours a week. Increasingly, Americans are developing electronic relationships while face-to-face contact diminishes. Stanford political scientist Norman Nie told The New York Times that the Internet was creating a broad new wave of social isolation.
"No one is asking the obvious question about what kind of world we are going to live in when the Internet becomes ubiquitous,'' Nie said. "No one asked these questions with the advent of the automobile, which led to unplanned suburbanization, or with the rise of television, which led to the decline of our political parties.''
Asking the obvious question is critical; and it is the role of us in academia to help our society come up with answers.
We should, it seems to me, devote special attention to two needs: for leadership and for community-building.
In MDC's 1998 State of the South report, we spoke specifically about the need for a burst of creative leadership to meet the challenges of the emerging economy - a leadership that is aware of the trends and understands why public investment is critical to expanding educational and economic opportunities. Of course, it is not just the South that is in need of leadership, but I mention the region specifically because we had a period not too long ago - alas, a brief period - in which we produced a generation of forward-looking leaders: Winter of Mississippi, West and Riley of South Carolina; Holton of Virginia; Alexander of Tennessee; Rockefeller and Bumpers of Arkansas; Askew of Florida and Hunt of North Carolina. For a while, we called them "New South'' governors, and I cite them to illustrate what we're capable of generating in political leadership.
We have, to be sure, a multiplicity of leadership-training organizations and institutes. Many of them concentrate on building self-awareness and on managerial skills, which are important, but not enough. We've got to have people not only who know how to run large bureaucracies, whether public or private, but also who know how to motivate a citizenry and bring out the best in our electorate.
A strong democracy rests, as de Tocqueville noticed, on a strong civic life. We've got to have communities with a vital array of civic associations, nonprofit agencies and public-spirited philanthropy. I know that Davidson works hard at instilling community-building values, and you are taking on a task important to the future of our democracy.
Further, we've got to have communities with a news media committed to core journalistic values. Unfortunately, in too many of our cities, newspapers - and TV to a large extent -- have retreated from the day-to-day march of democracy. They have turned over valuable newsprint real estate and air time to private pursuits: child-rearing, recreational sports, consumer advice. Meanwhile, writes Stephen Hess of Brookings, "the most obvious change in governmental and political news since I started studying it in the late 1970s is that a lot less of it reaches the mainstream press.'' As citizens of a democracy, we have to persist in letting publishers, editors, station managers and news directors know that they are entrusted with access to the public square and the gates to the square must be opened wider for much information, analysis, debate and day-to-day news to rush in.
Robert Bellah, who led the team of scholars that produced Habits of the Heart and the Good Society, has written that a "radical individualism,'' combining both religious and economic values, pervades the American mind-set. From it springs our notions of freedom and rights. From it also springs, says Bellah, a "flaw in our cultural code.''
"Our most urgent need at the moment is to open up our deep cultural code so that the sacrament imagination will have a more pervasive influence over our lives,'' he wrote in an essay last year. His point is that society is natural and good, that individuals must live in a public as well as private sphere, that we have to restore the concepts of the common good and social contract.
I'm sure you've seen the surveys of teenagers, college students and young adults regarding their attitudes toward service. The heart of the findings is this: Disillusioned with politics as currently practiced and with the foibles of politicians, they have turned to community service. Indeed, young folks are doing valuable work, giving of their time and talent to make life better for others, through such enterprises as Habitat for Humanity, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Teach for America. But a turning away from public service, even if for community service, doesn't ensure that democracy will remain strong in the future.
I say this not as a criticism of students and young adults, but rather as a challenge to ourselves, as members of an academic community and as leaders of our society.
Our challenge is not to stand against technology. Our challenge in this time of relative peace and prosperity is to attend to our democracy with no less ardor that we tend our economy.