CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- I once had a theory that the entire North American continent was sinking several inches per year from the accumulated weight of all the National Geographic magazines being stacked in bookshelves, basements, and attics. Nobody throws away National Geographic, right? All those gorgeous photos...
But the sinking may have been arrested, thanks to digital technology. You can now get every National Geographic of the last 112 years, from issue 1 to the present, on a few CD-ROM discs for about a hundred bucks.
Thanks to the Internet and e-mail, it's now possible to almost instantaneously deliver your message anywhere on the planet. At the same time, the term "junk mail" has been elevated to new heights. Now, in addition to having one's postal box crammed with circulars, catalogs, and solicitation letters, it's necessary to contend with Spam — junk e-mails that clutter your queue each day.
You think your situation's bad? Pity Congress: Last year it was bombarded with an astounding 70 million-plus petitions and other mass-generated messages! Government agencies, too, have been inundated with e-mails from groups hoping to influence an issue through sheer volume of communications.
Granted, a lot of trees may have been saved by not sending them on paper (but the Post Office lost the revenue). Still, are there enough government staffers to wade through all those electronic communiqués?
In what could be a ground-breaking move, the USDA's Forest Service is evaluating a proposal that would allow it to ignore all public comments on its rule-making process that are sent as duplicated form letters. This would apply not only to electronic messages, but to the pre-printed postcards and form letters that many organizations and advocacy groups use in their campaigns. These efforts can often generate 100,000 or more e-mails to Congress or government agencies regarding an issue.
The Forest Service says it has tabulated all such messages in the past, but that the same message duplicated thousands of times, without offering any specific comment, is of little value to the decision-making process.
Every e-mail to Congress is read, spokespersons say, although most admit that duplicated mass messages carry much less weight than an original paper letter, sent via "snail mail," stating the writer's position on an issue, and the reasons why.
Organizations and advocacy groups are, of course, upset at the Forest Service proposal, contending that high-volume e-mails and petitions offer genuine citizen input that might not otherwise be possible. (Not coincidentally, it also gives them a roster of names for fund-raising solicitations.) The groups further grouse that this is just a first step by the Bush administration to limit citizen participation in government.
However, the administration earlier this year created a Web site, regulations.gov, that supposedly will allow anyone to do research on the thousands of regulatory proposals put forth each year by government agencies, and offer comment. The site can be searched by agency name or keyword, and comments on a particular regulation are routed to the appropriate agency. Officials say this will improve the government's decision-making process.
In the first six hours of operation, the site got nearly 70,000 hits.