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April 03, 2007

Does E-State Success Mean Secession?

Last Sunday the Washington Post published a long opinion piece recommending that Vermont secede from the United States; the piece was written by UVM polysci professor Frank Bryan and Ian Baldwin who is publisher of Vermont Commons.  Despite the publication date, this wasn’t an April Fool’s joke.

Unlike the authors, I think secession would be a very bad idea even if it were a practical alternative.  They say that the “350-year swing of history's pendulum toward large, centralized imperial states is once again reversing itself.” It’s their second reason for this swing which intrigues me.

“…third-wave technology is as inherently democratic and decentralist as second-wave technology was authoritarian and centralist. Gov. Jim Douglas wants Vermont to be the first "e-state," making broadband Internet access available to every household and business in the state by 2010. Vermont will soon be fully wired into the global social commons.”

IMHO, they’re right about the effect of Internet technology even if they’re wrong about what it’ll lead to. Centralization and vast hierarchies were a necessary evil to deal with the problems of information flow and administration in a day when communication was very slow and expensive. Decentralization and flattening of hierarchies (which are both democratic) are possible when communications are instantaneous and cheap and the means of communication are widely available.  One of the most important reasons for the e-state initiative is to make sure no one is denied the opportunity to participate as governance becomes increasingly electronic and – hopefully – increasingly responsive and less bureaucratic.

Moreover, great Internet access will mean that Vermonters can connect better with the whole world of both ideas and commerce. This loosening of purely national ties is real although far from secession.  This flattening across national boundaries IS good in my view.

What Vermont will secede from if its e-state initiative succeeds is a failed national telecommunications policy which has led to the reestablishment of an even more powerful AT&T monopoly than the one that was broken up just a few decades ago.  This one is more dangerous because it includes both Internet and cellular and therefore exerts its hegemony in a society much more dependent on electronic communication in all forms than it used to be.  Any threat to a neutral Internet from such a powerful player simultaneously threatens personal communication, news, entertainment, and commerce.

The fact that there is some competition to at&t from cable and Verizon has not been enough to spare Vermont and the rest of the nation from a decline relative to the rest of the developed world in connection capability.

Rural areas including Vermont have suffered the most from this lack of competition. Local providers have done a good job of investing in the state but haven’t been able to cope completely with the economics of serving scarcely-populated donuts around towns whose centers have been cherry-picked by the majors.  Phone calls cost too much here (if you use Verizon); wireless coverage is insufficient; and broadband access – real, usable broadband access – is too hard to get in too many places.

The e-state initiative – and local initiatives like fiber to the home provisioning by Burlington Telecom – do give Vermont an independent path to a connected to future, do break our dependence on national telecom policy. And the resultant connectivity will improve democracy in Vermont.  For example, town meetings, which have been suffering from declining attendance, may take on new life as they move at least partially online. Centralization of administrative functions in the capitol and larger cities will be less necessary. Existing communities will be strengthened by incorporating web tools.  Most important, adding a key online element to education will (or at least can) produce better educated citizens – THE essential ingredient of any successful democracy.

Will Vermont secede from the Union once it is better connected to itself and the outside world?  No.  But Vermont will be free to connect to and compete in a world which is much bigger than the United States – independent of national telecommunications policy. And Vermont will be able to govern itself better within the Union.

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