Economic History

“Cutting edge” technology and its impact on democracy: the case of QUBE (1977) in Columbus Ohio.


Sometimes Innovation does not let people think historically. By historically, we mean considering past, present and future at the same time. Most of the times innovation leads us to think that any Innovation is entirely newand therefore it will have unprecedentedconsequences in the future. However, history is full of innovation experiments and the subsequent consequences.  Western societies have known information technologies and internet by decades now and there always has been a belief about its relation with the political system. The question has been: will the new technologies make our society more democratic? From experts’ point of view democracy is still a stage to achieve in a developmental line. Internet experts strongly believe that someday the political system will benefit from technology to the extent in which direct democracy will emerge. This paper goes back in history to show how innovation in communication has affected the political system. By looking at the QUBE experiment in 1977 in Columbus, Ohio, this paper offers a historical perspective on innovation and its effects on democracy. The second part of this short paper briefly summarizes some beliefs about the relationship between democracy and internet. The third part brings two examples of using technology for politics and policy decision-making processes. The forth part goes into the QUBE experiment analysis, and finally the paper presents some conclusions.

Democracy and technology:

Rostow’s idea of development assumes that all innovations made on information technologies belong to the latest stage of growth. In his view, developed countries have reached the age of high mass-consumption and beyond. The technology itself allegedly proves such transition. From there, innovation will always be cutting edge. The way western societies understand the concept of development applied to technology is by constantly pushing technological matters close to a time-cliff in which neither future nor past can be interpreted, basically, because innovations are so unique that they cannot be compared to previous experiences, and the technology always moves “up” and “ahead”. Once again, that restriction on innovations non-comparability was created by the western idea of history in which stages follow one to each other until reaching the age of high mass-consumption.  
Regarding political systems the story is not too much different. We have come to believe that democracy is the latest stage of liberal political institutions. Francis Fukuyama’s thesis dramatically ends the debate about further development of democracy. For him, the western world does not look for substantial changes on democratic systems as it does in social and moral issues (Fukuyama, 2000). Democracy is as it is currently and it is not going anywhere else. Somehow, western societies believe that there was the time when tyranny ruled societies; there was the time when God ruled the world; there was the time when direct democracy took place; those stages were successfully passed and now there is the time in which people govern themselves.
These two development lines (political institutions and technology) merge in a belief in which technology transforms representative democracy into direct democracy. Experts such as Darrel West, David Coursey and Donald Norris, agree in formulating four general stages (more stages) in the development of the relationship between democracy and information technology. Summarizing their concept of e-government evolution, there is a first stage called the billboard stage; then comes the partial service-delivery stage; one after, the portal stage with fully service delivery shows up; and finally, we get to the point in which the interactive democracy with public outreach and accountability – enhancing features are presented (West, 2007, pag 8-9).
Furthermore, West, Norris and Coursey reach a conclusion about the confluence of democracy and information technologies. They “…find evidence that is consistent with models of incremental change. Most public sector sites have not made much progress in incorporating public outreach or personalization into their websites” (West, 2007, pag 102). They also find that “local e-government in mainly informational, with a few transactions but virtually no indication of the high-level function predicted in the models” (Coursey&Norris,2008). These two propositions wish a stage in which direct democracy can be fully implemented. Innovation tends to make us think that we have never seen experiments regarding direct democracy. History may prove otherwise.

Previous experiences:

Going backwards in history, the first example Americans may have in mind, when it comes to using information technologies for public decision, is the Howard Street Bridge in Baltimore Maryland. Such case represents always an opportunity for illustrating how governance has been affected by information technologies, to the extent in which a Mayor may solve a public controversy  by simple asking his fellow citizens for their preference about the color of a popular bridge. This example is presented as an engagement of citizens in public decision-making. The Mayor Martin O’Malley set an online poll in 2004 at the city hall web site in order to decide on the color the Howard Street Bridge should be painted. The Mayor favored a Kelly green and his proposal was defeated on the online “plebiscite”. “In a close vote, the 5,139 voters who used a city hall web site chose a rust red-brown favored by Baltimore artist Stand Edmister” (The Baltimore Sun. Nov. 1st, 2003) The question that remains is, would the mayor call for a similar consultation in order to determine citizen’s preference on Personal Income Tax policies or reforms?
Continuing backwards in history, the second most popular example of mixing technologies with democracy is the 900 number used by ABC news in the Regan-Carter debate of 1980. As Jaffrey Abramson recorded in 1992, “After the first Regan-carter debate in 1980, ABC news invited viewers to declare a winner by calling the 900 number at 50 cents a call” (New York Times, 1992). What Abramson from Brandeis University pointed out in 1992 about the use of such technology and its impact on democracy is that the results proved to be excessively biased against Carter, giving to Ronald Regan an overstated perception of real leadership. Issues such as time difference between west and east could affect the outcome of the poll. Also the fact that the caller should pay 50 cent should have discouraged low-income potential callers, and so on and so forth.


QUBE was a system developed by Warren-Amex Corporation in 1977 which was based on television cable technology. QUBE introduced for the very first time the possibility of interaction between people in different places in real time. Columbus, Ohio marked the starting point of the network experiment. Initially, QUBE was designed for selling Warner TV shows and products to householders. However, QUBE rapidly showed its potential on political matters, mainly on polling. QUBE was used for registering preferences, cast ballots, order movies and play games. Basically, “their cable box was outfitted with five buttons, which could be programed to offer various choices. Buttons could be coded for yes, no, or undecided preferences…” (West, 2007. Pag. 104). It rapidly extended to several other cities such as Dallas, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Milwaukee and Houston among others. QUBE die in 1984.
Now, what were the conclusions reached after this “cutting edge” technology was used for political purposes?  Did QUBE innovation make Ohio more democratic than the rest of the United States?


This paper uses an historical approach in order to analyze “cutting edge” technology and its impact on democracy in the case of QUBE. Then, the sources that were part of this short research were mainly news and media articles. The research was limited to three newspapers: The New York Times, The Nation and the Baltimore Sun. From those articles we took a couple of excerpts which constitute a sample of what may be considered was the debate at the time. The following table shows the results.  
Table #1.
Newspaper, month, day and year
The New York Times. June 21/1992.
“Perot’s ‘electronic town hall’ wouldn’t work.
“Previous attempts to bring democracy into the electronic age have produced mixed, sometimes frightening results”
“It (QUBE) promised to let viewers ‘talk back’ to government and was used in several cities”.
“Rates of participation were low; those who participated were not a scientifically polled sample of the population”.
“The cost of subscribing to QUBE reintroduced a poll tax on voting”
“Children could be pushing the buttons”.
The New York Times. July 14th/1978.
“Planning commission gets its turn.
“votes were not binding, and most questions put to the audience amounted to a multiple-choice preference quiz on the towns future rather than the expected referendum on planning board recommendations to the city council”
“I Think this is going to put Gallup and Harris in the 19th century”
The New York Times. December 6th, 1977.
The Black Box Tyranny.
“One night during its tryout period in March, the audience was asked whether a show featuring rock records ought to continue. The vote, by Black Box, was thumbs down”.
The New York Times. August 29th/ 1982.
Are those ‘instant polls’ democratic?
“Albert H. Cantril, president of the National Council of the Public Polls, subsequently chastised NBC, noting that the “polls” results cited on the air were not an accurate measure of opinion even in Columbus, much less the Nation”
The Nation. August 7th/1982.
Democracy and the QUBE tube.
“Will the new television technologies make our society more democratic?”
“But the advocates of interactive television display a misapprehension of the nature of real democracy, which they confuse with plebiscite system”.
“Plebiscitims is compatible with authoritarian politics carried out under the guise of, or with connivance of, majority opinion”


This short paper tried to identify precedents for the debate on innovative application of technology and its impact on the democracy. By looking briefly at the QUBE experience as a tangible example of the application of information technology we may conclude that although Information Technologies are fairly recent developments, history may give some comparable examples that may help us understand the entire phenomena.
a)      The first aspect to note is that the debate about information technologies and its impact on democracy can be traced long back in history.
b)      There has been a concern about the legitimacy and transparency of technological tools used in previous cases in which technology has helped governments reach decisions. Such is the case of Columbus Ohio.
c)      Network Coverage and access also decrease the chances of legitimacy. Not even having a large amount of subscribers could support statistically appreciated values.    
d)      Opinions made public through these channels were not considered for final policy implementation. Unlike Baltimore’s Bridge, public consultations were not mandatory.    


Fukuyama, Francis. (2000). The great disruption: human nature and the reconstruction of social order. New York: Free Press.
Coursey, D. & Norris, D. (2008). Models of e-government: are they correct? an empirical assessment. Public Administration Review. May/June 2008.
West, Darrel. (2007). Digital Government Technology and Public Sector Performance. NJ: Princeton University Press. 

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