WASHINGTON, D.C.–History records that the first telephone conversation in 1876 was an urgent request for an in-person meeting. “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you,” Alexander Graham Bell is supposed to have said to his assistant in the next room. Monday night, Bill Clinton participated in what was billed as the first presidential Internet chat, an event intended to showcase another epoch-making technology in a larval stage. Clinton was more patient than Bell. He resisted the urge to say what must have been on the mind of nearly everyone present at the 90-minute demonstration: Why don’t we turn this damn thing off and have a real conversation?
The idea for the Town Hall Chat, co-sponsored by the Democratic Leadership Council and Excite, was to demonstrate how the Net enables new forms of democratic communication. Here’s how it worked: Clinton sat onstage in a small auditorium at George Washington University accompanied by Al From, the president of the DLC. Clinton and From had a screen in front of them. From read aloud questions sent in by e-mail, and Clinton answered. Also wired in to the session were five other government officials in remote locations around the country and Mark Andreessen, the founder of Netscape. In theory, virtual participants could watch streaming video of the event, listen to an audio simulcast, or watch a scrolling text transcription, all over the Internet.
In practice, the technology was pretty clunky. Due to “network congestion,” the voices of two of the officials didn’t come through at all, and others were either time-delayed or so distorted as to be barely audible. At times, the town hall dissolved into a series of “Hello Watson, can you hear me?” exchanges. Clinton read his prepared opening remarks (in which he compared the event to one of FDR’s fireside chats) from a teleprompter. If you were watching this on the Web, the herky-jerky streaming video of his head and torso represented a giant leap backward from the straightforward TV broadcast on C-SPAN. And the scrolling text, which was transcribed not by voice-recognition software but by human secretaries, was hardly a high-tech marvel. The overall effect was that of primitive video-conferencing. In a way, it made you marvel at how far we haven’t come since FDR’s day.
When the technology did work as intended, it merely made you wonder what good it is anyhow. Having a meeting over the Internet is still like walking to the mailbox in a 60-pound spacesuit. That it can be done–impressive. But why do it at all, given that the quality of the interaction is so poor? As in all Internet “events” I’ve ever seen or participated in, the time lags and unfamiliarity of the basic structure sucked any spontaneity and most of the oxygen from the room.
Part of the fault was not technical but human and political. In theory, the Internet allows for a vast range of queries from far and wide. In practice, questions for the president were so carefully vetted as to be far narrower in range than what he might have encountered from a small, homogenous, and friendly audience like the one in the hall. The questions were in fact, triple-screened: first by the Excite staff, which weeded out anything with the word “Monica” in it, then by the DLC staff, with a bias toward substance, and finally by From, who choose from among those culled for him. The messages that got passed on to Clinton were wonky and sincere, dealing in an unchallenging way with matters like free trade and health care. One of the few sparks of interest was a question about whether Clinton, if he didn’t live in the White House, would put aside food for a possible Y2K catastrophe. The president said he wouldn’t, because he doesn’t anticipate any serious problems.
Before long, Clinton was pointing at questions drifting by on his screen, begging for more difficult ones. The event might have worked slightly better if he had been given a mouse to flag questions he wanted to answer or a keyboard to send messages back to the control room. But this too would have risked embarrassment, since Clinton is an acknowledged computer illiterate and can’t type. Nonetheless, he does appear to have gained a sense of how the Internet might someday be democratically useful. In his closing remarks, Clinton made a point about how isolated a president can become from the public despite his best intentions to keep in touch and how the new technology might help. Then he thanked everyone for coming to his “press conference.”
Clinton is right that his successor,, will have a real tool to maintain contact with ordinary people. It’s too late for Clinton himself. He could have learned how to use a computer, of course, but I don’t think electronic politics holds any appeal for him. You can’t seduce a voter in an e-mail message. To Clinton, the political is the interpersonal: the hand on the shoulder, the intent gaze, the fleck of spittle in the eye. Even on television, he can provide a simulacrum of this human experience. But on the Internet, communication is far more abstract. E-mail bores him–and it showed. The most interesting part of last night’s event was what happened after it ended, when you got to see Clinton doing what he does like no one else, schmoozing live people. I eavesdropped as he massaged the ego of Tom Jermoluk, the CEO of Excite. “I know this may have cost you arm and a leg, but I think you may have revolutionized politics,” Clinton confided to him.
At the end of unsuccessful cyber-events, everyone always praises them as “historic.” Perhaps so, though I think history will remember them as fumbling experiments that pointed in a different direction. At this point, they testify mainly to the capacity of the Internet to take something interesting–like a discussion with President Clinton–and make it unbearably dull. But be patient: In five years or so, advances in technology may get us to the point where an Internet Town Meeting is almost as interesting as a Town Meeting without the Internet.