A highlight of the recent Presidential campaign were the three Presidential debates. In my neighborhood, our good friends Teresa and Joe (the marketeer, not the plumber) sponsored debate parties, which were a great neighborhood-building event. We crowded into their living room around the big-screen HDTV, and alternately cheered and cried as each debate proceeded. We made dozens of pithy and funny comments (all our comments were both pithy and funny, although some were in questionable taste). We suggested pointed comebacks for the candidates. We had fun. We were that most basic unit of democracy – neighbors and friends.
The 2008 debates pioneered new uses of technology. In at least one primary debate, questions came from YouTube. MySpace and MTV hosted one-candidate town halls with questions submitted via instant messaging and e-mail. Twitter was used extensively, I’m sure, for debate comments. And with the 140 character limit, I’m sure the comments were concise, if not pithy! CNN even tried to gauge voter sentiment, second-by-second during the debate, via a set of graphs powered by three groups of captive voters, a tactic which was interesting but disparaged by most observers.
Televised debates have been a staple of presidential campaigns since the infamous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the first of which was lost by Tricky Dick’s five o’clock shadow. In these “hi-tech” debates of 2008, I see the seeds of an interesting technology future for our still-young democracy.
My initial idea is a relatively simple one, but hard to realize. My friends Joe and Teresa have a widescreen HDTV. My household has an HDTV. With the digital transition in February, 2009, even more households will have digital or HD televisions.
A few months ago I purchased an HD-camcorder at Radio Shack for $200. I just use it to take video of my three-year old, but suppose I hooked it up to the HDTV, and suddenly we had a two-way HD video stream? And we did that in every household. And suddenly, instead of having a Democracy where we observe a debate, we could participate in it. Instead of having hundreds of people drive (polluting the air) to a town hall meeting to interact with candidates, we’d have a virtual town hall with HD video feeds from households all over the City (Think “second life”, but with real faces instead of avatars.)
Now, clearly that won’t work with a Presidential debate with 70 million households watching. But there are a LOT of elected officials in this country. There are debates for Governor, Mayor, City Council and even Sewer Commissioner. Constituents are interested and sometimes quite passionate about these races, and may be quite interested in participating from their living rooms.
Of course two-way HDTV requires bandwidth. A LOT of bandwidth. And present DSL or coaxial cable networks won’t support that sort of two-way bandwidth from dozens or hundreds of houses in a neighborhood at once. Fiber-to-the-premise will be needed, and I suspect that will still be somewhat rare for some time to come, unless you are lucky enough to live in a place served by Verizon FIOS or a municipal utility such as Lafayette, Louisiana, or Clarksville, Tennessee. Those cities will have a bit more democracy than the rest of us, I guess.
1960 was the year of debate cosmetics (five o’clock shadow), 2000 was the year of the candidate websites, 2004 was Howard Dean’s year of Internet organizing, and 2008 was the year of IM and twittering. I’m not sure what new technology will take 2012 by storm, but I’m certain that eventually two-way HDTV will make us all active participants in elections.