Computers Bring Democracy to Work

EVERYONE knows computers speed up work - faster calculations and communications, quicker filing and printing. What's not so obvious is that these speedy electronic boxes, especially the personal computers that sit on people's desks, are changing the nature of the workplace. More information flows to more people. Personal computers are democratizing the knowledge-power within organizations.

Consider the case of Tucker Gibson, a Texas consultant on drawing and redrawing election districts. In 1976, when San Antonio, Texas, asked him to help redistrict the city, it took two full-time people working two months on an IBM mainframe computer to draw a map. Professor Gibson still remembers the dozen or so boxes of computer cards, which had to be handled manually.

Today, that task would take days instead of months - thanks to more powerful computers, better software, and computer-accessible Census data. The process is also considerably cheaper. So, for the first time ever, a wide array of groups is joining the redistricting game in their state. The implications are enormous.

For example, the Southwest Voter Research Institute in San Antonio is sending software and election data to more than 150 Hispanic groups in five southwest states and Chicago. The computer information will allow these groups to determine quickly and simply how local officials are drawing new town and school district lines.

Are they diluting Hispanic voting strength by dividing Hispanics into different districts? Are too many Hispanics concentrated in one district? What about blacks and other minorities? Are urban populations getting a disproportionate share of United States representatives? How will suburban and rural groups react?

With this new knowledge-power, all these groups can play the game. They are democratizing the democratic process.

The same process that is taking place here is occurring in all kinds of professions as more people get computers on top of their desks. Company information typically flows to more employees than 10 years ago, when only a small cadre of people operated a huge, room-sized mainframe. With that information and the power to manipulate it now available on everyone's desk the potential to act is much greater - even from those at the bottom rungs of the company ladder.

An auto-assembly worker could find out why a specific bolt doesn't quite fit by looking at the original design specifications. A salesman could check his company's inventory.

There are some caveats to this new computer-democracy, however. First, the technology often promises more than it can deliver - at least in the short term. In the case of redistricting, the technological barrier is lower but not as low as observers initially hoped.

The new mapping software packages, known as geographic information systems or GIS, are still relatively expensive at $10,000 to $20,000. Moreover, the files coming from the Census Bureau require huge amounts of computer memory and can run on only the most powerful personal computers or workstations. (Workstations are desktop computers that are even more powerful than personal computers.)

Thus, instead of paying $5,000 to $10,000 for the power to redistrict a large state, individuals and groups have had to lay out $60,000 to $150,000. It cost John Alexander about $75,000 to set up his new redistricting consulting firm in Austin, Texas. That's still cheaper than a decade ago, when he estimates it would have cost him $1 million to try to do the same thing.

Still, small groups and even small towns can't afford that kind of money. They will have to rely mostly on new consultants like Mr. Alexander to do the job.

Just as important, democracy creates noise that is sometimes deafening. Court challenges to redistricting will be far more numerous this time than a decade ago. Some redistricting consultants worry that the process could become so bogged down that legislatures won't be able to draw a map.

We have a technological passport to a more democratized world, but the flight could be awfully bumpy.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.