C O M M O N   S E N S E    Issue 1.01 - May 1995


By Martin Walker

Some 780 years after King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta by his barons at Runnymede, there's a new version going the rounds on the other side of the Atlantic: the "Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age". Forget the old stuff about a jury of one's peers, and earls having the right to be hanged in a silken noose, the version circulated by Newt Gingrich, new Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, is about the rights of the citizen as an electron. "Rather than being a centrifugal force helping to tear society apart, cyberspace can be one of the main forms of glue holding together an increasingly free and diverse society," claims the new Magna Carta. Pompously put, perhaps, but Gingrich has a point - and if he is anywhere near right, the wave of change that Gingrich is riding will have a far greater impact on old-world Europe than new-world America.

Gingrich's commitment to liberation technology comes from both his academic's head - the man was a history professor - and his politician's heart. "Without the information age and its alternative media ... I don't think we'd have won," he told a Conference on Virtual America after taking the Speaker's chair. "Now we have to create a Virtual Congress ... to get legislative materials beyond the cynicism of the elite."

Cynical Europeans sniff at such techno-populist exuberance. But there are lessons from cyber-Washington which they ignore at their peril.

The first concerns the fate of the original political cyber-nauts: Al Gore and Bill Clinton. Clinton was the first candidate to go from network TV to MTV and cable. He put the White House online. Vice-president Gore became virtually synonymous with the information super-highway.

So how come their opponents were swept to power in large part by the very technologies which Gore and Clinton spent so much time promoting? Mostly because Gingrich used them better. Gore is a social democrat, who sees building the infrastructure of the future as part of a larger moral duty for a (hopefully enlightened) government to lead a (presumably grateful) people down the path of progress. Gingrich, who calls himself "an opportunity conservative", is now using that infrastructure to turn Gore's moral bargain on its head - giving people the opportunity to demand from government the policies they want.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, seeds very similar to those which sprouted into Gingrich's revolt are quietly growing - and in very fertile soil. Out of touch politicians? Look at Major or Mitterrand. Entrenched bureaucracies? Look at Brussels. Stodgy media that sustain complacent power structures? That just about sums up European broadcasting.

So as Europe's social democrats coax regulation-coddled companies into building tomorrow's infra-structure, they will rapidly discover that, in the old world as in the new, technological infrastructure is both too much and not enough. It is too much for the old order to withstand, but not enough by itself to create the new. Networks are merely the means by which information travels and conversations happen. At the end of the day, it is the talking that counts.

So what kind of talk counts most? What will political leadership consist of in an electronic age? The last time new media and new politics came together - when radio and mass-circulation newspapers entered the post-war world of the 1920s - the hot new leadership style was fascist: mass politics to suit mass media. Cyber-politics will be different - decentralised and argumentative rather than centralised and leader-worshipping.

But exactly what they will be, nobody yet knows. Some Americans argue that the new age will be a leaderless one in which government is swept along by an electronic tide of popular opinion, an age of the tyranny of the majority. Others see noisy gridlock. For while electronic communication is great for generating ideas, it is less helpful for building consensus. Cynics predict that new leaders, will manipulate the new media just as their predecessors did the old - government by talk show.

But none of these scenarios has room for Europe's status quo. The nooses that now need concern Europe's political barons and bureaucrats are not silken, but electronic - and tightening. For better, for worse, or both, the only way forward is in the footsteps of Gingrich. As Gingrich says, "I don't do by planning, I plan by doing." Europe's politicians had best get doing too. It's either that or be done to.

levitra generic Martin Walker is the Guardian's Washington correspondent.