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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Pappas: Legislative Technology

When my great-grandfather served in the legislature decades ago, crafting laws was a slow, deliberate, contentious process – dependent on tools mostly long gone from our culture – like stenographers, typewriters, carbons and telegrams. Revisions took time to typeset and duplicate, affording legislators plenty of opportunity to discuss bills at gatherings. Politics have always played a role in legislation, but bills became law only after lengthy consideration. So in the end, most lawmakers knew exactly what they were voting for.

That’s not to say that grinding out legislation today is not deliberate or meaningful. But it does happen at lightning speed by comparison, and keeping up requires a new level of attention to detail. Copy and paste — and especially that menace autocorrect — can be friend or fiercest foe. Errors are common.

It’s remarkable to witness government in action, and chronicle — in real-time — the slightest movements, missteps and triumphs. We walk around with the world in our pockets - seemingly oblivious to any methodology that can’t be tweaked by just firing off a text or writing a clarifying email. And social media enables the public to “comment,” “like” and message lawmakers even as debates are unfolding. We’ve become instant polls, focus groups and naysayers.

I once saw a lobbyist in the House gallery text a legislator who was speaking from his seat — and the words of his short message were soon repeated by the lawmaker and entered into the public record. Floods of constituent emails can force a crisis of conscience between party and conviction – while in my great-grandfather’s day, telegrams at least gave lawmakers a little breathing time before the next round of debate.

With the Freedom of Information Act, lawmakers and elected officials have had to be reminded exactly what’s in the public’s best interest when it comes to all those texts, emails and Facebook messages. Today, public requests for electronic information are commonplace, with online forms that reporters and editors use by simply plugging in dates and data. Even those requests get emailed.

Of course, convenience and access do not guarantee transparency, while apps and search engines should never usurp intellect and learning. Robert C. Clarke has written that, “...information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, and wisdom is not foresight. Each grows out of the other, and we need them all.”

We want transparency in government; we need the due diligence that comes from thoughtful dialogue and a reasoned approach to governing. But we also want our technology. And whether we want to acknowledge it or not, Big Brother is watching. So perhaps the bigger question is: Is he paying attention or just on Facebook?

Steven Pappas is Editor of the Times-Argus in Barre Vermont.
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