89. "Minerva: An Electronic Town Hall," Media Ecology Review, Vol. II, No. 3 (November 1972), pp. 3-5.


In contemporary modern societies, there are no effective means by which large groups of citizens, whether dispersed across the country or clustered in a single community, can regularly interact among themselves or with their leaders. One result of this is the increasing alienation of the citizen from political and social processes; another is the making of decisions that are unresponsive to the real needs or wishes of the people. In addition, there is little opportunity for mutual influence to occur, or for an authentic group consensus to evolve.

At last there is a basic conception of the attributes needed to create a technological system that will allow a large number of citizens to dialogue with each other regularly and to form their positions on public issues as a group.

Participation is sought largely when citizens feel politically effective, not when they sense that their votes or presence in a meeting make no difference. In circumstances where people feel they actually have a role to play, they are more likely to inform themselves.

As to the cost, the participatory features can be an auxiliary, or "add-on" to Systems that already exist, such as over-the-air network TV, radio, and telephone, or to systems which are desired for other, commercially viable purposes. As an "add-on" feature, the system suggested is rather inexpensive.

One attribute of the system that is considered essential is that dialogue among citizens and between them and their leaders precede the pollings of views. In a truly democratic process there is a genuine dialogue among the citizens and between them and their leaders before a vote is taken. Without such a dialogue, the positions that citizens are likely to take tend to be impulsive, uneducated, and unnecessarily polarizing. A reasoned, informed, and broadly-shared position requires dialoging.

An optimal mass dialogue and response system--or, more technically, a Multiple Input Network for Evaluating Reactions, Votes and Attitudes, MINERVA for short--will provide a means for people to communicate with each other as groups and with central broadcasters. MINERVA is now being developed at the Center for Policy Research in New York. Its pre-requisites are these:

1. a capacity to address a group (or to broadcast),

2. a real-time group dialogue of a geographically dispersed membership,

3. a continuous real-time feed-back between the audience and the broadcasters (national or local political leaders or opinion-makers), under conditions approximating town hall meetings,

4. the recording of participants' public responses and the reporting of the evolving group consensus (or its absence) to participants,

5. the injection of expert information into the dialogue,

6. the establishment of rules that regulate the accesses and utilization of the system and have a capacity to be revised according to the responses of the participants,

7. the provision of opportunities for sub-population dialogue, inter-subpopulation dialogue, as well as various combinations of subpopulations.

None of the technologies that are described below provide for all of these elements single-handedly. However, when put together in various mixes and following some adaptations, they could provide such a system.

In a completed system, every person who owns a radio or a television set and has access to a telephone will be able to follow, react and participate in the discussion and resolution of public affairs.

Such a system of dialogue and responses can operate on many different levels with technologies appropriate for each level

The main device that allows millions of people to dialogue and create authentic consensus, and which has the potential to affect public policy, is the division of the citizenry into small groups. The members can discuss matters with each other and then delegate representatives to the next level, where the delegates in turn dialogue with each other and so on, until the society-wide level is reached.

The following communication tree, which combines several technologies, offers a four-level dialogue and response system:

a. for small groups (up to 30 persons), via automated telephone conferencing;

b. for small communities (300-2,000 persons), via two-way cable TV, where available;

c. for intermediate communities (6,000-40,000 persons), via a combination of radio or over-the-air TV with regular telephones;

d. for still larger entities, including national and international ones to be referred to as societal entities--via networks that link the communication systems of intermediate communities: cable, microwaves, TV relay stations, or satellite.

It is assumed that the activation starts with a society-wide "priming" broadcast by one person or a panel, is followed by a discussion that percolates upwards from the smallest to ever more encompassing levels, and culminates in a nation-wide dialogue and vote.

In order to reproduce, with technological aids, features of a town hall meeting that are practical for a mass of people, the elements of an effective dialogue and response system need to be known. Obviously the system will contain one or more speakers who address themselves to a topic on the agenda, and who seek the floor by a procedure (or rule of access), with a chairman or some equivalent) granting the floor. Devices for requesting the floor, awarding it, and protecting the speaker from undue interruptions are needed.

In evolving their personal position, the speakers and various factions are affected by non-verbal cues, such as those of approval, disapproval , and apathy. The suggested system seeks to provide for these less obvious features of town hall meetings as well as for the more obvious ones.

Finally, the system must provide for a vote.

The following concrete model is offered:

1. Small groups (up to 30 persons): Telephone Conferencing: This involves an automated system that connects up to 30 persons, either by dialing-in or by a computer that calls all the numbers simultaneously. The MINERVA research has already established that groups of 9 members work quite readily in automated conference calls.

The MINERVA circuit that is being developed has the following four feedback features (other than the voices of the participants): (1) an "I request the floor" cue capacity, (2) an electronic means for signifying positive and negative responses, (3) an electronic way to register a vote, and (4) summary cues which make the group visible by reporting to each participant--speaker and audience--the group's responses and tally of votes.

Continuous feedback of the group feeling is possible; the sense of the group may also be assessed at the request of either the group members or the chairman.

It might be possible to cue the chairman with the same touch tones as those used by the telephone company. Other methods are being sought in the hope of minimizing the adaptations necessary in the telephone system itself, as distinct from adding panels and bridges. There is also the possibility of automating the chairman's role by using the bridge to allot the floor for a set period to those who seek it.

Assuming all this becomes available, a time span of two hours can be set aside for small group dialogue after a system-wide "primary"broadcast and before a response tally is taken. The tally will be passed on to the next level of dialogue; that is, in the sequence reviewed here, dialogue in the small communities will start with a report of how the member groups expressed themselves.



2. Small communities (300-2,000 persons): Group Cable TV: For communities in which cable-television is available in every house, as well as in public places, electronic conferences of several hundred persons seem possible. Following the primary national broadcast and small group telephone conferences, the dialogue may be extended to this level. The dialogue would be over the cable TV's so-called "origination" channels (those which do not carry network broadcasts). Citizens would be able to react over a feedback channel. This channel would carry audio as well as digital signals, such as votes and requests for the floor. The system assumes a two-way CATV system (now in an advanced state of development) and the availability of a response box in each participant's home, similar to the one available to participants in the conference call system. The dialogue barrier, that is, the number of persons that this system can maximally accommodate, has yet to be established.

Why use two-way cable TV and not telephone? There is a technical question: Can the telephone circuits, presently designed for two persons, be amplified without very special arrangements to the point where, say, 600 people can easily dialogue? Secondly, cable TV is broadband and hence can carry video signals both ways. While we do not expect every home to have a camera, the cable allows the center of the dialogue and video origination to be in any public 'meeting place or in any home using light and movable cameras, loaned or rented for the evening. Also it stands to reason that being able to see as well as hear the chairman, and maybe other Participants, and to present charts and tables visually, aids communication. Finally, tallies of responses and votes can be fed back to the participants more easily in the cable TV system than over the telephone.

3. Intermediate Communities (6,0000-40,000 persons): Combination of Radio or over-the-air TV with regular telephones: A different system is suggested for communities whose size puts them above the dialogue barrier. Here one will rely on a dialogue among participants who have called in, by telephone, to a central broadcast station.

The floor is obtained by telephoning the chairman to register a desire to address the group. When the floor is granted, the telephone call is broadcast over the air.

This system is expected to work best when the entire listening audience and the participating community are roughly co-extensive.

Various ways of tallying people's responses and votes rapidly and frequently in this kind of situation have been investigated. The method that seems most imaginative and responsive to these considerations is that of telephone polling. Here, each telephone is equipped with a response box, into which the person registers his preferences by pushing buttons, after which the response is tallied. The MINERVA team is now studying the time required to poll people using the telephone method.

4. Societal Entities: Cable, microwaves, TV relay stations or satellite: A state, region, nation, or group of nations may all be covered by a system whose upper layer is a combination of a system-wide priming broadcast and many more intermediate community systems of the kind already described. The broadcast can be carried over the air, on network TV, and the communities that make up the system can be connected via telephone cables, a TV relay station, satellite, or microwaves. System-wide polling would be achieved by feeding the tallies of each intermediate community to a central tally station, quite likely over telephone lines (as only digital signals, and not video communication, would be necessary).

On the system-wide level, panelists--experts, leaders, mediators--participate (from central studios) by reacting to various feedbacks, which come in the form of frequent, system-wide tallies. Also, representatives of intermediate communities could address the societal system by telephoning in, to a central switchboard. Thus, the societal system is essentially a second-order intermediate community system.

It is quite possible to start on a higher level, but once sub-groups have been identified, they could sub-divide in order to "caucus" while the meeting as a whole is temporarily adjourned. Also, regional tallies might be taken before the nation-wide tally, etc.

The suggested dialogue and response system may be used in many ways, which would differ in one or more details from the optimal model depicted so far. Some of these alternative ways are these:

1. Use of any one or two levels without the other.

2. Variation in composition of groups: according to age, ethnic origin, political viewpoint, or various combinations thereof.

Social innovations, or at least a set of experiments and decisions will be needed before the new technological system can be used. The structure that regulates participation of polity members is referred to as the rule of access. Those "rules of access" or mix of rules that most effectively contribute to a successful meeting in a variety of situations will have to be established. For the purpose of developing MINERVA the following alternative rules of

access are thus far being considered:

1. A first come, first served basis.

2. Random access.

3. Access on the basis of popularity.

4. Minority preference.

5. Access on the basis of representation.

MINERVA, or public affairs' use of the envisioned communications system, can be readily added on to other uses. So, if the other uses of the system, which require the same technological developments as MINERVA, justify the costs involved, MINERVA can get a free, or almost free, ride.

It is clear that several technical developments (from automatic conference calling to rapid tallying), social innovations ?in the area of "rules of access"), and economic investments are needed before a mass participatory system will be available. Research thus far suggests, though, that one version or another of the multilevel system depicted, can provide the needed technology. Moreover, it will enable dialogue among smaller entities, and frequent, easy feedback by the citizens of larger ones. The extent to which this system is used and its effect on our society will depend, in part, on how specifically it is set up (especially on the rules of access that are used) and in part on external factors such as the responsiveness of the government, the spread of college education, and higher per capita income. But it does offer an opportunity for a more open, participatory society.

 

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