To Aristotle the idea of a placeless, borderless community would have seemed very strange; it appeared self-evident to him that a state -a self-governing political unit-had a definite, bounded territory in which the citizens lived and over which they exerted control. In Politics he devoted a section to enumerating the properties that this territory ideally should have: it should be productive enough for self-sufficiency, large enough for the citizens to live comfortably but in moderation, hard for hostile forces to invade, easy for an expeditionary force to depart from, convenient for surveillance, well situated in relation to sea and land transportation, and well within reach of agricultural produce and of raw materials needed for manufacturing processes. 29
This classical view of the territorial state finds architectural expression in the government assembly buildings (usually augmented by bureaucratic support structures) that traditionally have been erected at the hearts of governed territories. (Nobody erects them outside, except in the occasional special case of governments in exile.) So a city has its city hall, a state has its state house, and a nation -depending on its form of government-may have a Versailles, a Westminster, a Kremlin, a White House and Congress, or whatever. At a larger scale, whole cities may be designated as state or national capitals-special places for government business. In most modern systems, the politicians who assemble in these places represent specific territories from whence they come.
Clearly the technological means are now emerging to replace these spatial and architectural arrangements with electronics and software, and it isn't hard to construct plausible arguments in favor of such a substitution. For a start, political assemblies could become virtual, with representatives connecting by computer network instead of sitting together in chambers. This is not such a big step; assembly chambers are already equipped with electronic systems for recording votes, and most of us watch the proceedings-if we watch them at all -on C-Span or on local cable. Such a rearrangement would be bad for things like fancy Washington restaurants, but it would keep politicians closer to their constituents, and it would save on transportation and accommodation costs.
However and wherever the power holders get together, though, there remain the more basic political questions of who holds power, whose interests are served by the power holders, and how these power holders are to be made accountable. Aristotle devoted a great deal of Politics to these issues. According to his teleological view, he argued that the state existed to serve the common good and that constitutions should therefore be judged according to whether the rulers served their own interests only or those of all the citizens. He then went on to describe and evaluate all the different types of constitutions that he could imagine-five types of kingship, four types of oligarchy, and four types of democracy.
As political theorists were quick to note when the discipline of cybernetics emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, these sorts of discussions can readily be recast in computational terms. You can, as Aristotle had pointed out, have various kinds of tyrannies in which control is exerted from the top and there is no effective feedback loop from the ruled to the rulers. Or you can put in feedback loops of some kind, so that the rulers feel the consequences of their actions and are prompted to attend to the common good. Elections, then, establish one important kind of feedback loop and opportunity for corrective action; if the rascals are not acting for the public good, the populace can throw them out.
But electoral mechanisms have some obvious limitations as control devices. They operate on a slow cycle, and their effects on specific policies may not be very sharply focused. This is, at least in part, an inevitable consequence of traditional electoral technology. When votes from large numbers of people scattered over wide areas must be collected and tabulated by manual means, the process always ends up being a sluggish, cumbersome, and expensive one. It just isn't practical to repeat it too frequently.
As telecommunications networks have developed, there has been growing flirtation with the idea of replacing old-fashioned voting booths and ballot boxes with electronic polling. In a cyberspace election, you might find the policies of candidates posted online, you might use your personal computer to go to a virtual polling place to cast your vote, and the votes might be tallied automatically in real time. Because all students have access to the on-campus Athena network, for example, MIT can conduct its student government elections in this way. There are, of course, potential problems with electronic stuffing of ballot boxes, but these can be handled through password control of access to the virtual ballot box or (better) through use of encryption technology to verify a voter's identity.
Other kinds of electronic feedback are evolving, too. For instance, as the Internet and commercial online service communities grew rapidly in the 1990s, American politicians quickly realized that they needed e-mail addresses. So you can now fire off your comments on the day's issues to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. The idea quickly spread to other parts of the world; in summer 1994 Poland's prime minister, Waldemar Pawlak, went online at email@example.com. 30 And I once tried sending some suggestions on reproductive rights to firstname.lastname@example.org, but it just turned out to be the address of a hacker playing a prank. Anyway, the pontiff logs in wirelessly to quite another place.
Electronic feedback can even be swift enough, potentially, to support real-time (or at least very fast) direct democracy on a large scale. 31 Populist demagogues like Ross Perot have proffered visions of sitting in front of your two-way television, watching debates, and bypassing the politicians by immediately, electronically recording your response. The network presents the packaged alternatives. Vote with your remote!
Grizzled old operators still like to assure us that "all politics is local." But in the cyberspace era, things may be very different. You do not have to buy into Perot's appallingly reductionist view of political discourse to realize that cyberspace has the potential to change political institutions and mechanisms fundamentally; it opens up ways of assembling and communicating with dispersed political constituencies, new opportunities for instigating and formulating issues, and mechanisms for providing decisions and feedback at a much faster pace than in the past.