The interactive, electronic Presidential town meeting is here, and its MIT-based computer is responding to 2,000 electronic mail queries a day from all over the nation and the world.
You can request position papers, discuss and debate issues, and sign up as a volunteer in any of the four campaigns-Bush, Clinton, Marrou and Perot-which are on the ballot in all 50 states. Also included is the Larry Hagelin campaign, which is on the ballot in 28 states. Through this electronic democracy system, you get back an immediate computerized acknowledgment, and the position paper information is often available in minutes.
Eric Loeb, a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience, initiated the multiple-candidate Presidential Campaign Information Service at MIT's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Laboratory on October 19 as an experiment to study how electronic mail and the INTERNET national computer network could facilitate the political process.
John Mallery, a PhD candidate in machine learning and political science whom Loeb calls "a hacker par excellence," has joined him in the project, which is under the supervision of Professor Patrick H. Winston, director of the AI Laboratory.
Loeb estimates that there are 20 million computers in the US. on the system, which serves the universities, government agencies, the military, commercial firms and nonprofit organizations. Worldwide, he estimates, it can connect to 40 million computers.
Loeb and Mallery describe it as a "non-partisan service operated at MIT to make campaign information available, facilitate electronic discussion of the issues, and to study the use of electronic mail as a component of a presidential campaign."
In eight days, about 21,000 messages have been sent by about 1,400 people, from Boston to California to Australia. About 200 people have volunteered for an individual campaign.
The system, located at the AI Lab, uses a LISP server to program requests and send out initial mail, with a series of Sun work stations using UNIX to mail out the 10 megabytes of political positions and other campaign information that the candidates' have available to send out.
The process is simple. For example, to receive the position papers on the economy for the campaign of MIT alumnus Andre Marrou, '62, of the Libertarian Party, you open your electronic mail and type as follows:
Subject: RECEIVE ECONOMY
Then send the message. The same procedure is used for the other candidates by simply substituting the appropriate candidate's name: Bush, Clinton or Perot.
You get back a questionnaire giving you various Yes/No options to volunteer in a state, or to provide campaign feedback, such as ask questions, make suggestions, get suggestions from other people, retrieve questions from others, and vote to recommend questions and suggestions the campaign could consider this week.
You can request to receive speeches; campaign news such as news flashes, schedules, and press releases; or campaign packages on various issues.
You can even sign up to discuss (electronically) economic policy, foreign policy, social policy or political philosophy.
Loeb is interested to see if computers can increase democratic participation in real life as well as on the computer screen. "It is all very well to read your mail and debate, but the bottom line is getting out the vote. We expect that the most potent use of e-mail is to get fresh documents to volunteers all over the country, with the expectation that those volunteers are making hard copies of the documents and posting/distributing the documents.
"As an experimental service we are providing mailing lists for the volunteers in each state. Those mailing lists can be used to help local volunteers coordinate their efforts amongst themselves and with their state headquarters," he says.
When you register as a volunteer, you are automatically included in the national volunteer mailing list and will receive any new material that is made available.
Loeb and Mallery note in the introduction, "The service can neither control who reads what you write in public, nor how they may use your written words. For our part, we store most messages, and we will make them available after the election for scientific study. Names and any other identifiers will not be released; they will be omitted or replaced with random symbols."
The service also lets you ask anonymous questions to each campaign through a suggestion box. It has its limits, though. There's no guarantee you'll be answered.
A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 1992 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 37, Number 11).