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The Politics Of Cyberspace

There are some signs that this election cycle could be the one in which the revolution in communications and computers sweeping the nation actually has an impact in politics.

There had been a lot of brave talk in past elections about taking campaigns high-tech, but talk was about all that had been put in place.

It seems as though a critical mass may have been reached since the last election.

With more than 20 percent of the state of Iowa having access to the Internet, there are more people available to be touched through cyberspace. It only makes sense that elections would follow every other aspect of life being altered by technology.

Secretary of State Chet Culver is even running a test program this year to see if there's an interest in voting on the Internet, and common sense says there will be.

Everywhere you look this year, technology is on the move in politics.

The presidential campaigns pointing toward next January's precinct caucuses are all voracious users of the Internet, with staffers having that as their sole responsibility.

Web sites for the various campaigns are now not only a pretty design, but are designed to accomplish some things.

There are some cautionary notes, however, as politics becomes an increasingly high-tech business. The more mundane political motivations politicians have will be a force in shaping this brave new world.

Culver's experiment is designed to bolster voter turnout by offering an alternative way to cast a ballot.

While every politician will say for the record that boosting voter turnout is good for the country, most of them don't believe that. Politicians, in fact, believe only in boosting the turnout of voters in their camp and are only too eager to suppress the turnout in the rival camp.

There are even very sophisticated techniques for doing just that.

On a broader note, the whole concept of negative campaigning is based at least in part on suppressing turnout. One use of attack television is to disgust voters and convince them not to vote.

That's used by a candidate who has made the calculation that a small turnout is better for them, not an unusual calculation. Candidates with strong organizational backing do better in low-turnout elections.

You can bet the politicians are checking the demographics of cyberspace to see who gets helped by adding a high-tech slice to the electorate.

There are other potential impacts of the increasing trend toward technology, and some of it is troubling. Technology backers argue that the Internet is the great leveler of American politics because it gives everyone unfettered - and unfiltered - access to information.

That's not quite true.

It gives that access to everyone who can afford a few thousand dollars for a computer and a monthly fee to hook into the Internet. That takes a lot of people out of the game right there.

In addition, there's a large capacity for mischief in offering that information. One of the growing callenges being faced by those immersed in cyber-politics is sifting the wheat from the chaff.

While there's a blinding array of information available in cyberspace, there is absolutely no measure of what is reliable.

Politicians don't have the strongest record around of sticking with the literal truth, and cynics would argue the Internet gives them one more avenue to mislead.

In a more practical vein, there's another side of the equation to worry about, and that's finding a way to make politics compete for the interest of those who surf the Web.

You can dress up a Web side with all the bells and whistles around, but a position paper is still a position paper and is generally pretty dry stuff.

One of the main appeals of the Internet is the instant sort of gratification that's available, and it can be dangerous bringing politics into a world where the standard is the speed of gratification.

Still, it promises to be a fascinating evolution as the technology of modern communications is melded to the ancient art of politics. There are hundreds of options that can be brought to the table, from basics like Internet voting to using technology to measure the impact that campaign tactics are having on the electorate.

There are some fascinating new emerging technologies that use focus groups to measure in real time the impact a political debate is having, allowing politicians instant mid-course corrections.

The same sorts of techniques could be used to measure the impact of television advertising and stump speeches. It won't be long until the systems person in a campaign ranks right up there with the strategist.

News Analysis By MIKE GLOVER