Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Does a presidential candidate need to be tech-savvy nowadays?

Since I’ve been writing a lot recently on trivial issues the candidates are judged on, it’s time to shift the focus on John McCain. He’s gotten some press recently on his computer illiteracy, so much so that he’s in danger of being seen as out of touch and a luddite.

McCain’s inability to email not only strikes some as being another knock against his age but also on his ability to adapt to new things. After having a president that is known for being a stick-in-the-mud on a good day, most voters want someone now who is a little more flexible, and a candidate who looks so feeble with using the basics of computing is not only going to turn off the tech-mad young, but those who can’t believe a guy’s been able to survive the past decade without a computer. Even the poorest of Americans, even the ones who can’t afford a computer, let alone WiFi, usually have a MySpace or an email account they can check at the local library.

The number one perennial insult for anyone running for office must be “out of touch”, to prove that the candidate is out of step with Americans. But America is so vast that one person’s outdated is another one’s fashion-forward. McCain might eschew email and still talks of learning about “the Google”, but I bet there are Americans who are charmed by this. I know two people who barely know the basics of computing (one doesn’t even own a PC and just got her first email address three weeks ago--and she is not a senior citizen), and they are both, incidentally, Republicans, and are likely to vote for McCain. The fact that he doesn’t know his way around a computer might be comforting to old fogeys like these two, who can relate, instead of finding that they are talking circles around them like anyone else.

How important is John McCain’s familiarity with modern technology to voters? It’s more important than Obama’s eating or exercise habits, that’s for sure. Most of the coverage has ridiculed McCain, baffling so many people as to how he’s lived the past decade or so without such basic familiarity with email. His daughter has a blog, for crissakes. Imagine trying to explain that to daddy.

Anna Quindlen has it right when she says that power is isolating, that web searching and fact-checking are for assistants, not for the boss. But it’s true that I also found it unsettling to hear that he relied on his wife to do all the basic online things. Couldn’t she teach him? It’s pretty easy to create a login name and password, and so much computer prowess is amassed from just clicking around, which of course is something the senator doesn’t have the time for. But it’s amazing that a man with seven kids is just so completely unaware of how so much of modern life is conducted on the computer. My brother and I make fun of my dad a lot because he’s pretty computer illiterate (if the AOL icon bar is not in the same place, he freaks out), but even he knows how to email. Sort of.


petpluto said...

I'm kind of "eh" on this issue, and it is a rare day when I don't agree with Anna Quindlen. I kind of wonder how often presidents really get on "the Google" anyway.

I wonder how important it is that he knows how to navigate technology himself, as opposed to understanding the importance of technology. If John McCain understands that technology is a great resource and innovation in those fields is key, then I don't really know if I'm too bothered by much else regarding this issue. Of course, it isn't like I'm anywhere close to voting for the guy anyway, so it matters less to me than it does to someone who is really deliberating between the two candidates.

John said...

While I do recognize that the lowly task of emailing is typically left to assistants, I would have thought that every major political representative carried some sort of Blackberry-type device so that they could stay informed of the latest developments at all times. Is it really an efficient use of taxpayer money to pay someone to read and write John McCain's personal emails for him? Even CEOs with teams of assistants can and frequently do send their own emails. If, for example, the CEO of a massive trans-national company like Wal-Mart or GE can find the time to use a computer and send an email, senators should be able to as well.

petpluto said...

Well, that's kind of what I mean. I assume -perhaps wrongly- that presidents especially have aids that will inform them of things like Russia invading Georgia; unlike the rest of us who have to have Blackberries and iPhones with NY Times alerts, they've got people who are theoretically MORE on top of the events of the world.

The guy should learn how to use e-mail, but I pretty much file this under as much of a nonissue as Obama's eating habits. A quirk, but one that can be easily worked around if he is the best man for the job. I just don't think he is empirically the best man for the job anyway.

Note that much of my information comes from "The West Wing", but it seems to me that the president rarely gets e-mails straight to him anyway. After all, President Bartlet had Mrs. Landingham and Charlie for that sort of thing.

mikhailbakunin said...

I stopped reading after "Does a presidential candidate need to be tech-savvy nowadays?"

YES! Of course! This is the friggin' 21st Century!

How can the leader of the free world NOT know how to use a web browser?