When technology removes democracy

In a CBC report about parking kiosks, Charlottetown city councillor George Trainor made an odd comment:

He said the city’s website will soon have a place for citizens to put their comments in writing. Trainor said stopping a councillor on the street won’t help. “I don’t want to talk to them on the street. I want to talk to them on the computer or put it on paper or something.”

When we use technology as an intermediating crutch like this, we remove its essential human element. If you don’t want to be stopped on the street, get off city council: it’s your job to get stopped on the street.


alexander o'neill's picture
alexander o'neill on June 15, 2005 - 15:58 Permalink

We can all imagine what will happen when this guy tells enough potential voters to go soak their heads (“tell it to the computer”)

oliver's picture
oliver on June 15, 2005 - 17:10 Permalink

Maybe he likes to have a transcript and a record of who said what to show others on the council and/or an easy way to personally report back to citizen on how it went. Maybe he’s talking about being on the street while dashing between government buildings on business.

Laurent's picture
Laurent on June 15, 2005 - 17:15 Permalink

I read a while ago in the journal du net (= french best and only daily on technology) that 17% of customers of the second biggest bank were not interested in real life contacts anymore. So it’s not just these big guys who get scared by the street people.

link here: http://www.journaldunet.com/04…

Marian's picture
Marian on June 15, 2005 - 18:01 Permalink

I agree with Oliver: for the same reason that it’s a bit unfair to ask doctors about your hernia on the street, it’s abit unfair to expect politicians to be on duty 24 hours a day.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on June 15, 2005 - 18:12 Permalink

Politics isn’t a disease, or an outcome, it’s a process. It’s a discussion.

Marian's picture
Marian on June 15, 2005 - 19:19 Permalink

It may be a discussion, but it doesn’t need to take place every hour of the day. I think even politicians deserve to have some level of private life. I know it seems radical to say so. I’ll assume you’ll call me on that use of ‘radical’ but I can’t help it. I feel sorry for people in public life.

oliver's picture
oliver on June 15, 2005 - 20:37 Permalink

It’s a discussion but there’s a limit to how organic we can make a process while keeping the trains moving on time. You don’t need an appointment for a gun-shot wound but for non-urgent care you do. I don’t think a political opinion or question should have to be an emergency for you to have cause to approach your representative, but you should grant the possibility that they know better than you how busy their hospital is and whether it can manage its load without requiring an appointment or some concession from the client for the sake of efficiency and/or to demonstrate an earnestness with which the representative can take justify to him or herself neglecting somebody else while attending to you. If a representative has a Web site and an e-mail address and it’s not just for show, then the barrier to communicate with him or her strikes me as plenty low for those people with easy and frequent online access. I think we’re right to want access to be accountable. You don’t want a representative spending 10 hours of the day smoking cigars with paid lobbyists and five minutes receiving constituents in his or her office. I think the desire for instant anywhere access is only partly about our personal convenience and more about accountability or the perception thereof. Unless society is moving real slow and little is going on up there, I think it’s unfair to insist on that degree of accountability and you should look for some other indicator for a representative’s commitment to and knowledge of the interests of his or her constituency.

Rob L.'s picture
Rob L. on June 15, 2005 - 20:45 Permalink

I understand what you’re saying Peter, and it’s absolutely true, but when I read the quote in question — it was earlier today, and I’m only going on memory here — I got the impression we weren’t getting the entire context (or he simply wasn’t expressing himself very well). Having recently had dealings with City Hall myself, I know from personal experience that simply speaking to a councillor is not going to further your cause unless you give him/her something concrete to point to, i.e., a letter or email or petition (or, ahem… a protest blog). The way I understood him, he was saying, “Look, I’m getting all kinds of complaints from people in the street about these g.d. things, but it would be helpful if we had some formal complaints registered with city hall that I can put on file, refer to at the appropriate time, and share with my collegues”. Or somesuch. I don’t think any elected official (who isn’t secretely harboring electoral suicide fantasies) would ever literally say… “I don’t want to talk to anyone on the street”.

Ken Williams's picture
Ken Williams on June 16, 2005 - 01:00 Permalink

Damn right Peter.

Kevin O's picture
Kevin O on June 18, 2005 - 06:07 Permalink

(Pete, Marian): Even the word politics suggests a vast difference between it and, say, medicine. Polity (the people) being the root.

If doctors knocked on doors for clients then stopping them in public would be apropos, but politicians run rather freely with other people’s time and space when they want something, especially during a campaign, and they — as tough as it may be sometimes — must accept the touch of the peoples’ finger and not hide behind the click of their keyboard.

It’s a good point as well that the full context, in this case, may be more important than the quote.

Marian's picture
Marian on June 18, 2005 - 14:22 Permalink

I agree that there are some limits to how much private life a representative is entitled to. But I think that one sure way to make representatives not responsive to their constituents is to ensure that they never run. I think a lot of people don’t run anymore because of the high level of very personal attention they receive (often by the press, but also by their constituents and political opponents) and because more than ever there is little respect for ordinary claims to authority or privacy. This has lead to a kind of ad hominem politics in which if people are not schmoozy and stooping to conquer, they are perceived as being unjust or malingering. So I think that paradoxically, this holding to account is attracting people who are not in fact responsive in the way that you want. Look at Howard Dean. Dean