The dark side of technology

Technology is a double-edge sword, and it's a good idea to understand how both sides of the blade cut

I'm not qualified to talk about economics or geopolitics, but I do profess to know something about technology. Therefore, I'll confine my paranoia to that subject.

Salesforce.com -- a company that has always been good at anticipating trends, thus reinventing its tagline to read "the enterprise cloud computing company" -- proudly announced today that President-Elect Barack Obama's Web site, Change.gov, is using its technology.

The application, called Citizens Briefing Book, uses Salesforce CRM Ideas as the infrastructure to solicit ideas and opinions on issues from ordinary citizens. The technology presents proposals from us regular "main street" folks, and we get to vote these ideas up or down. They are also weighted with the so-called best ideas bubbling to the top of the pile.

Sounds good -- like participatory government at its most promising. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, the "best" ideas are rated as such because they received the most favorable votes. I don't know about you, but I'm not sure the best ideas are always the most popular. That's one reason I'm a bit worried.

And then there is the evil genius in me -- OK, perhaps minus the "genius" -- that senses something more sinister. I'm not saying this administration has anything bad in mind, but over time, I'm concerned that the site can be terribly misused.

It's a time-honored tradition among despots around the world to use the idea of plebiscites and referendums to circumvent an uncooperative legislature. What if, like those dictators too numerous to mention, an administration used this Citizens Briefing Book as a tool to get its way?

In stage one, the administration -- any administration -- using the Citizens Briefing Book proposes legislation online it would like to see passed.

In stage two, what if the responses are tabulated by Congressional district? It's no secret that most of our representatives would rather throw their principles overboard on any single piece of legislation than risk defeat in the next election. Thus, an administration that understands the psyche of our Congress could take the outcome of those votes, perhaps numbering in the millions, and use it to coerce the legislators into voting in favor of bills they might have opposed.

I realize there is an ongoing argument on whether our representatives should vote their conscience or according to the will of the people in their district. And because this is still debated, the idea becomes even more dangerous. Remember, there may be a reason why our founding fathers gave us a representative form of government rather than a direct vote.

In stage three, if you believe that only a direct vote is legitimate anyway, you might conclude that we don't even need Congress. In fact, we can put that to a vote on the Citzens Briefing Book. After all, once everyone has a computer, every home is a polling place.

Ain't technology grand!

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