Prodigy can turn keyboard into political action weapon

May 31, 1993|By James Coates | James Coates,Chicago Tribune

The trouble with apathy, as Yogi Berra might have put it, is that nobody seems to care much about it these days.

Enter a new breed of home computer user: the digital do-gooder, the ASCII activist. Welcome to political action computing.

With almost no fanfare and precious little supervision, a number of the same powerful weapons that once were the province of Gucci-shod lobbyists have fallen into the hands of the hard-drive hoi polloi.

Don't just get mad that Congress wants to raise your taxes to build a fiber-optic data superhighway or that the cable company wants to force you to wade through 500 television channels when there's nothing worth watching on the 50 you already have. Get a modem or laser printer and get even. Lash out at those who make the laws.

You say you're so alienated that you really aren't even sure in whose congressional district you live? You're far from alone. A recent survey by the Congressional Research Service found that almost 70 percent of Americans don't know who their representative is.

No problem for the digital democrat, however. Go online with the Prodigy home data base service, select "Jump" and then move to "Write to Washington."

You are prompted to type in your ZIP code, and Prodigy's computers search out your representatives in the House and Senate, delivering profiles of each that show things such as key committee assignments, past work on Capitol Hill -- even scandals.

A mini-word processor pops up, complete with advice from the League of Women Voters about how to properly address members of Congress and how to make your points in the most politic and effective manner (including subtle tips such as replacing salutations along the lines of "You money-grubbing, shifty-eyed, skirt-chasing slime ball" with ones such as "To the honorable. . . .")

After venting your spleen, click on "Send" and Prodigy flashes your note to a facility in the Washington area where a paper letter is prepared and sent along. You can send notes to Congress, the White House and Cabinet officers for $2.50 each.

These snippets of digital democracy imply much more than just providing a way to blow off steam, said Jim Douglas, vice president of Political Systems, a Santa Cruz, Calif., software company.

"If you can see something on TV that gets your goat and then five minutes later send something out the front door that registers your feelings, you are exercising more significant political power than most people know," he said.

Mr. Douglas' company sells a subscription software package for DOS-based machines called Political Action, which includes a data base holding the names, telephone numbers, fax numbers, biographies and other information about thousands of key people in the legislative and executive branches of the federal government, along with those of several hundred news media leaders.

The Political Action software costs $69.95 for the main program; users will need to keep updating the data base, particularly after elections, and quarterly updates cost $29 each. The company can be reached at (800) 945-5973.

Political Action has a major competitor in a similar DOS product from SoapBox Software of San Rafael, Calif., called Federal SoapBox ([800] 989-7627). At $129 for the program and $49 for updates, SoapBox is a bit more expensive and lacks the telecommunications links built into Political Action.

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