By Tom Hayes
“I do understand the importance of the computer,” Mr. McCain reassured in The San Francisco Chronicle last week. “I understand the importance of the blogs.” He said, “I am forcing myself — let me put it this way, I am using the computer more and more every day.” But keeping up with technology “doesn’t mean that I have to e-mail people,” he said. “Now, I read e-mails.” The staff is “constantly showing them to me as the news breaks during the day.”
Does that make any of you uncomfortable?
A piece by Mark Leibovich in this week’s New York Times on Senator McCain’s unabashed ignorance of all things digital has me alarmed.
Now, I am not saying that John McCain (or Barack Obama, for that matter) needs to know HTML, or explain what sputtering is, or even follow me on Twitter (although it’s a good idea). I am saying that he should be a little more respectful of what technology means to our world today. At minimum, he should be less proud of his ignorance.
After all, the Internet is no longer a mere convenience of the global economy–it is the global economy: some 183 billion emails–2 million per second–are sent every day, there are 80 million bloggers roiling in the blogosphere, and many Americans spend more on connectivity every month than they spend on gasoline. No, I don’t think the Senator needs to be a geek-in-chief, but he does need to show that he understands the paradigms of technology, because they are to a large extent the new forces behind the world we live in.
Ours is a complex world today made ever more so by the very technologies Mr. McCain diminishes. If elected he will find no blinking red phone on his Oval Office desk connecting him directly with the leader of the Other Side. Instead, he will need to link into a distributed world of shadowy networks(like the all-Internet Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Abu Sayyaf, and on and on); where policy decisions are fraught with hyperlinks and jump points and track backs and easter eggs; and urgent emails lose their oomph when printed out and bound into a briefing book. Mr. McCain aspires to lead in a world where 1000 days from now more people will be online than off, where every citizen owns a printing press cum TV station cum intel network; where the political landscape is an always-on lattice-work of data indicating either immediate dangers or imminent opportunities. In this new world, the US is a node–a big, vital, beautiful node to be sure–but a node nonetheless. Navigating that landscape is more challenging than ever and it helps to think in sync with these fragmented times. It will clearly be a handicap to be an analog thinker in a digital age.
And, if for no other than practical reasons. Mr. McCain needs to get keen on computers and the Internet right now. Consider the game-changing role the Net and Blogosphere are playing in this year’s election. For one thing, Senator Obama has raised more money than any candidate in history largely from small donations via the Internet. Perhaps he’d be a more competitive fundraiser if Senator McCain embraced the technology behind the coin of the realm.
If Mr. McCain needs a quick primer on the bedrock ideas behind today’s technology–and he is, I understand, a quick-study–I urge the Senator to reach out to Silicon Valley. Regardless of political stripe, the geeks here will gladly, proudly help him.
Nobody wants to be a pencil in a world of Blackberries. Certainly not the leader of the
free fast world.
Tom Hayes is CEO and publisher of Edgelings.com and the author of Jump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business(McGraw-Hill 2008).