Some Citizens Are More Equal Than Others

Opinion: If you're not tech-savvy, you can't participate in the latest round of YouTube presidential debates.

As the hype for the Democratic Party YouTube/CNN debate built last week, I kept remembering a quote from George Orwells Animal Farm: “All animals are equal,” the head pig Napoleon tells the farmyard, “but some animals are more equal than others.”

The reason that I kept thinking about this is because the debate, sponsored by CNN and YouTube, was clearly catering to those Democrats who were more equal than others. If you planned to submit a question, it had to be a video via YouTube. You couldn’t just write a letter and mail it, or send an e-mail as you could in previous debates. This in turn meant that if you were poor, or living in a rural area without high-speed Internet, the Democrats didn’t want to hear from you.

Now, I realize that comparing the Democratic debate to Animal Farm is kind of a stretch. After all, Orwell’s book was an allegory on the old Soviet Union and Communism, not on the political efforts by one party or another in the United States. On the other hand, it does describe a level of elitism that is being embraced by both parties. If you’re connected on the Internet and technically aware, they love you. If you’re poor, or you live in a rural area, or perhaps in an area that Internet carriers have bypassed, you’re not in the sights of either party.

It’s easy to simply dismiss this as an expensive publicity effort by YouTube to point out what the company hopes might be the future of politics. But if so, it’s a future that’s inherently anti-democratic (note the lower case “d” here). In order to participate in the process, you must have the equipment to create a video and upload it to YouTube, and you must have the training and the pathway. Without meeting those criteria, you can’t submit questions.

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Now, there are many who may suggest that this is the wave of the future, and it might be. But government exists in the present, and it must accommodate those who don’t have the means or the knowledge to be video producers. And it’s not just the economic means that is the problem. It’s also the means to access the Internet in a way that makes YouTube possible.

If you can’t afford a computer, or high-speed Internet access, then you’re excluded. If you can’t get high-speed Internet access because of where you live, you’re excluded. If you don’t know how to create a video, copy it on to your computer and upload it, you’re excluded.

Yes, high-speed Internet is available to people who live in cities, and theoretically they can participate this way, but do you really think the schools and libraries would really let someone produce and upload a video to YouTube?

So now we’ve had a Democratic debate that wasn’t remotely democratic. But while the Republican party has yet to try this, the party of Lincoln isn’t necessarily any more open. Both parties clearly want well-off, connected, urban and suburban voters because they’re active, they donate and they have the free time to attend meetings. But we got rid of the idea that only the well-off could participate very early in the life of this nation, and we should keep that notion out of politics in the future.

If YouTube and CNN really want to democratize the process, then why not find a way to help those who want to participate produce those videos? Or better yet, why not simply allow questions using other means as well, like written letters or even e-mail? While neither CNN nor YouTube has any particular reason to allow such things (they’re not part of the demographic they crave) the parties could insist on it. But they haven’t so far.

So how about it? Instead of going back to the days when the political process was the exclusive domain of the well-off, how about some indication that one or the other party would commit to opening up access to the process as well as the Internet? If the Internet is the wave of the future, then it has to be part of everyone’s future.

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Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...