A new chapter in history

This nation has come a long way from the agrarian society envisioned by Thomas Jefferson when he penned the Declaration of Independence more than two centuries ago. The past 50 years in particular would have baffled and dismayed Jefferson, as the United States emerged from World War II as a military and industrial superpower. Industry and urban development have won the day, creating social, political and economic divides that fly in the face of his lofty ideals and defy simple solutions.

But the Internet, a product of that same industrial complex, eventually could help bridge those divides and uphold the principles of Jeffersonian democracy. The potential, though yet unrealized, is there.

The Internet, more than any other technology of the past 200 years, has spanned the landscapes of this vast country and the world, giving people access to information and services that otherwise would be unattainable.

It also opens a new channel of communication between citizens and their government. Basic government services already are available online, especially at the state and local levels.

Then there's what the visionaries call e-democracy, or the idea of an Internet-driven revolution in the political process. Some elected officials have tested e-mail, discussion boards and online surveys as ways to communicate directly with constituents. It's not clear where this may go, but the possibilities are tantalizing.

The gap between the Internet Age and Jefferson's world might seem unfathomable, but it is not. His vision of equality and liberty was matched only by his belief in the power of science and technology to improve the lives of everyone.

It is no longer fashionable to discuss the Internet in such lofty terms. The social and economic divides created by the Industrial Revolution have only been exacerbated by a digital divide, because technology just creates opportunities for those who have the money and training to use it.

The early fervor for bridging this divide seems to have chilled in recent years, as the difficulty of the task became apparent and the economic downturn diverted resources elsewhere. But similar to Jefferson, we need to take a broader perspective and recognize the enormity of the challenge without letting go of the vision, no matter how long it takes to fulfill.

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