Apparently the blogosphere is abuzz with McCain’s recent disclosure that he has to force himself to use a computer, that the closest he comes to using email is his staffers showing him email, and that his wife makes all the online reservations when they go to the movies (source NYT). This is in stark contrast with Obama who, on top of looking super-presidential and cool, is apparently a whizz with the technotoys, and even had his own podcast since early days of his senatehood.

In the NYT piece, an interesting comment was posed by both the McCain campaign and a blogger associated with the former Edwards campaign:

“You don’t actually have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country,” said Mark Soohoo, a McCain aide for online matters, at a conference on politics and technology. “You actually do,” interrupted Tracy Russo, a former blogger for John Edwards.

So, Internetz, with your experiences of blogging and online life, what do you think?

I currently am in the Russo camp, myself (shocking, I know). I think if you’re impressed that your wife can buy movie tickets online, then how can you think about how the internet is becoming as basic a utility as electricity? How can you start thinking about working with – actually collaborating with, not just taking advantage of or just sending aid – countries who have skipped the analog technology era of telephones, and jumped straight to digital cell phones? Or how microlending businesses supported by enterprises like the Grameen Bank that use cell phones as both a service and a necessary technology can change global economic models? Or how Second Life might change how formal education needs to occur?

I think the participatory nature of the internet means that to understand it, you MUST participate in it. Because, you know, that’s the whole point.

But what do I know? I’m just some academic blogger. And what do you know? You’re just the faceless masses of the internet who are simply governed by impulse.

So, prove ’em wrong. Why should the president personally experience the internet?


  1. #1 cg
    August 4, 2008

    I don’t think it’s necessary. Has anyone ever said that X can’t be president because he’s never watched Hill Street Blues or ER or According to Jim… or Sesame Street or Meet the Press?

    Those are American cultural touchstones in a certain way. I kid with According to Jim, but I think that there is a certain truth to the idea that a leader doesn’t need to know everything about everything to lead. You don’t need to be a doctor to evaluate health care policy (though it probably helps). You don’t need to be a teacher to evaluate education policy (though it certainly helps). You need to be able to gather a solid group of advisors that can be trusted to provide informed opinions to you as a leader.

    I would feel better if each candidate had displayed a mastery over a technology that is so basic to everyday life for so many people. But the internet is a pretty low priority for me in terms of what McCain should be focusing his attention on if he wants to be a good president.

  2. #2 ScienceWoman
    August 4, 2008

    Experience matters. Isn’t that what McCain himself is always trying to tell us? Here’s a medium that is fundamentally transforming the way Americans work, play, communicate and learn. Obama has the experience, McCain doesn’t. Seems pretty simple to me.

  3. #3 PhysioProf
    August 4, 2008

    I’m more concerned that McCain is a sick-fuck right-wing asshole who is going to continue this country’s ride off the edge of the cliff in service of the neo-feudal corporate oligarchy.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    August 4, 2008

    If you are web-savvy, you understand how global and interlinked the world is today.

    If you are not, you will keep thinking in terms of “us and (or versus) them”, or in isolationist terms, or in violent war-mongering terms. The concept of nation itself is changing due to the Internet. A leader of any country needs to be up to date on this.

    Otherwise, what PhysioProf said….

  5. #5 bsci
    August 4, 2008

    What bothered me about the NY Times article is that they focused on McCain’s lack of knowledge about the most recent trends in computer usage and not the underlying issue of computer literacy. I’d venture to say the interconnections made with computers are important, but a person can understand them without actively participating.

    Still, you need to know what software on a computer is compared to running programs online. You need to know how an operating system relates to these. You need a basic understanding of how phone lines vs cable/DSL vs fiber optics vs wireless affects how the internet is used. Someone who has serious power over regulation of computer-related issues and infastructure developments needs a basic understanding of this stuff.

    I’d venture to say anyone who regularly uses a modern computer, no matter what the applications are, would get this level of understanding.

  6. #6 khefera
    August 4, 2008

    most disturbing is mccain has been one of the ranking repubs on the commerce committee since marconi started playing with vacuum tubes. the guy has set telecom policy for the country for years without even the basic understanding of how it works. how can you pretend to lead a digital economy forward when you don’t understand something that has become fundamental to most people’s lives?

  7. #7 blf
    August 4, 2008

    “Steam-powered” candidate is perhaps more accurate.

    Does this apparent fear of the interwoos put him in a minority, even in his own age group? An admittedly quick search didn’t find any data. It did find this, US Internet user profile by age, which is both not too helpful (e.g., doesn’t indicate what percentage of people don’t use the ‘net) and suspect (I think it is a marketing survey). With those caveats, those results do suggest people aged 65+ are, broadly speaking, just as active as younger people.

  8. #8 decrepitoldfool
    August 4, 2008

    Nope, sorry; you can’t wrestle with information-age issues using steam-age technology. This is much more fundamental than what TV shows a person has watched, or if they know the current price of a gallon of milk.

    How can you assess education policy if you’re thinking (but have learned not to say) “Well damn it, blackboards and chalk were good enough in my day!”? How to grasp the timeframe in which 300 companies around the world will snap up a bid request, if you have not shed the temporal assumptions of phone calls and envelopes with letters in them? I could go on but that’s my take.

  9. #9 JK
    August 4, 2008

    It might be helpful to have experience of the internet, but it’s not a requirement of the job. No candidate will have experience with everything important.

    I would say two things matter most:

    1. Political principles

    2. Ability to get advice and ask questions of the right people

    If a candidate satisfied me on those two points then I would vote for them. (On the specific election, I’m not a US citizen)

  10. #10 pensiveRM
    August 4, 2008

    I find it interesting that someone who positions himself as the better candidate for national security could truly believe that computer and internet proficiency was not essential to the job. Much of Al Qaeda and other extremist groups’ strength is derived through the anonymity that web forums provide. The internet has been a vital tool for terrorists to mobilize, organize and recruit new members.

    It is absolutely essential that the president actually USE a computer and the internet. If you were sick, would you let a doctor who’s never actually dealt with patients decide how to treat your disease? After all, they’ve been TOLD about cancer before – isn’t that the same thing? I think not.

    The hardest war to win these days is the going on in people’s minds. There’s a reason this is called the information age. Having a mastery of new technology will put our government ahead. A strategy that underestimates the power of the internet will be a security liability.

  11. #11 Peggy
    August 4, 2008

    What really bothers me is that McCain seems to have intentionally chosen not to learn how to use the internet, even at the most basic level. McCain has access to an internet-connected computer, his wife knows how to use the internet, and, much as I dislike his politics, I don’t think he is unintelligent. According to my dad (who is in his 70s) there are men he worked with who refused to read and write email because it involved typing, and that’s something that secretaries do. It makes me wonder whether McCain’s unwillingness to learn how to reach on his wife’s computer is because of an arrogant belief that it is work that is beneath him. If that’s the case, that’s a serious misunderstanding of our American culture where it’s increasingly expected that CEOs and politicians are “wired”.

  12. #12 Rhubarb
    August 4, 2008

    Is this the issue on which to decided the presidency? Probably not. But in addition to the literacy/policy/global economics issues at stake that others have mentioned, I’ll throw in one more point. I worked for several years under a department chair who was functionally computer illiterate. In practical, day to day terms, that meant that I could not communicate electronically with this person about anything without the knowledge that at least one if not several other people would read it.

    While I’m not naive enough to believe that email is truly private or that I could put something in an email that I wouldn’t want made public, there were multiple times I wanted to document a particular interchange or topic but didn’t because, while I wanted it recorded, I didn’t want it immediately public in that way because of the nature of the subject and the people involved.

    Lack of basic computer skills meant that this chair was functionally unable to interact with the members of the department and staff without having someone else do the actual work. And that fact in and of itself was decidedly problematic.

  13. #13 Candid Engineer
    August 4, 2008

    McCain is too busy trying to figure out how to bomb Pakistan and doesn’t have time to learn the intricacies of the interwebs. He might as well not know how to use the goddamn phone.

  14. #14 Becca
    August 4, 2008

    Nope, I don’t agree that you can’t grasp the importance of the internet without using it.

    My father, who has all the fine motor coordination of a cow, couldn’t use a mouse for years. He got the point of the internet long ago. In fairness, he has (finally!) joined the digital age, but we still can’t quite persuade him to get on the family blog.

    He knew, from the time he was in high school, that computers were important. You see, the year after him, anyone who was bright enough got hauled down to University of Chicago to play with the computers there. This was the time of the ancient, card-reading goliaths. My Dad was just a year too old for that. He watched technology pass him buy for years. He knew it was important, and he made sure I had a computer from an early age (about 8 or so, I think). He is generally a very careful shopper, and got badly burned on the computer purchase. So the next computer we got, he made me research and select it. Being able to get caught up with the latest tech specs and find the best bargin is definitely a valuble life skill. His guidance of my education in this area was outstanding- all because he thought of computers as transformative. Even though he didn’t use them much at all.

    However, as I mentioned, my father did eventually take the plunge (relatively affordable large screens and better mouse technology helped a lot, I think). It’s very possible John McCain doesn’t grasp what the internet can really do. If he does, and he still chooses not to use it, then I really have to wonder if he’d do a good job in such an information requiring position.

    As an aside, @ Coturnix- I must respectfully disagree. There are plenty of isolationist, conservative, violent war-mongers on the internet. They just don’t flock to these parts. Also, I’m not sure being on the net helps one really grock “the world” as connected… since, despite some very inspiring efforts (e.g. one laptop per child), the vast majority of people still live without ever using the internet.

  15. #15 Joshua Zelinsky
    August 4, 2008

    Given that Ted “Series-of-tubes” Stevens was recently indighted it might be appropriate to use net neutrality as an example of an issue that has large-scale implications and would be almost impossible to understand without any understanding of how the internet functions. Indeed, many people who use the internet regularly don’t understand this issue. And this is but one of a variety of different issues where this sort of situation occurs.

  16. #16 llewelly
    August 4, 2008

    McCain has a history of using his knowledge to do evil. Realistically, the less McCain understands the internet, the better off we all are.

  17. #17 Andrew Seagrim
    August 5, 2008

    The Internet IS now a basic utility – I dare think that you would expect your president to be able to use a toaster and not ask his wife to turn on that new fangled electric light. Luckily in Australia we’ve dumped our version of McCain for a guy who can do an Obama and won his Prime Ministership with an enormous online army. And he speaks Cantonese too!

  18. #18 mike Haubrich, FCD
    August 5, 2008

    Joshua beat me to it, I don’t see how the legal issues involved in the modern usage of this technology could be understood by someone who thinks that it is unnecessary. Net Neutrality is vital for a functioning internet, and commerce in general for small businesses (let alone for independent bloggers.) Could McCain understand that? Not if he shows a lack of curiosity about it. He was a jet pilot for criminy sake, he has the ability to understand it if he wants to.

  19. #19 Lucas
    August 5, 2008

    You know, people like to vote for candidates who share their values and ideals. I find it extremely hard to believe that a candidate can share my values concerning freedom of information, openness, and the general direction of our society who isn’t fascinated by the internet. Really, I don’t think that there is anything *wrong* with McCain not using the internet, but it indicates that *I* shouldn’t vote for him. Really after reading this, the whole “Obama eats arugula so he’s not like me” thing makes more sense.

  20. #20 Lucas
    August 5, 2008

    “What bothered me about the NY Times article is that they focused on McCain’s lack of knowledge about the most recent trends in computer usage and not the underlying issue of computer literacy”

    I definitely agree with that. I’ve been using a computer since I was about 10 (about 15 years). I regularly contribute to Wikipedia, write computer programs, and subscribe to 150 RSS feeds on Google reader. But I don’t use twitter, and rarely use instant messaging. On the other hand if I was trying to run a political campaign, I would use whatever communication methods I had at my disposal.

  21. #21 Ace
    August 5, 2008

    I find it problematic like many others said… But additionally, I just found this hard to believe in the first place. Not using e-mail in 2008? In a first world country, by a working adult? Could it be that McCain is just saying this sort of thing to appeal to the kind of voters, you know, who felt an affinity to W because he was a C student (and proud of it)? Just a thought…

  22. #22 Lab Lemming
    August 5, 2008

    Hopefully the president of the United States has better things to do with his time…

  23. #23 BAllanJ
    August 5, 2008

    “I don’t think it’s necessary. Has anyone ever said that X can’t be president because he’s never watched Hill Street Blues or ER or According to Jim… or Sesame Street or Meet the Press?”…from the first comment.

    That’s content….and to quote McLuhan… the medium is the message.

    It isn’t the content of the net, (well mostly not), it’s the way it changes how people interact and learn.

    So he either has totally ignored a technology that many voters use for a lot of their communications, entertainment and information…or, he can’t do it. Either one is scary. I’m not saying he necessarily can’t make a contribution to government, but he shouldn’t have a central role as someone who needs to know at least something about everything. A prez has to be more of a generalist than that.

  24. #24 Andrew
    August 5, 2008

    I’d say it wasn’t necessary for the President to understand the internet.

    However that comes with a caveat, it is necessary for the President to know he doesn’t know about the internet to a great enough extent to shut up and listen to advisors who do.

    Thats the unlikely part unfortunately.

  25. #25 PhysioProf
    August 5, 2008

    What’s necessary is for the next president to not be a sick-fuck right-wing wackaloon scumbag who is going to continue the process of destroying everything that normal decent Americans hold dear.

  26. #26 Jenny F. Scientist
    August 5, 2008

    I think it’s more like not knowing what a TV is, rather than not having seen Sesame Street. The man said in public that he’d just learned to ‘do a Google.’ (In my hometown, no less.)

  27. #27 lylebot
    August 5, 2008

    I don’t know that he has to know about the internet, but the fact that he doesn’t just makes him seem old and unwilling to adapt. Three of my four grandparents regularly do basic internet stuff like email, and they’re older than McCain.

  28. #28 Rev Matt
    August 5, 2008

    I think it’s important for politicians to be personally comfortable with technology in order to grasp what a powerful tool it is.

    My mom, 79 years old, is a lifelong technophobe who had minimal luck with using the VCR in the 80’s and 90’s. She however has found the internet to be very empowering and uses it extensively to book flights, research books and movies, and shop. She’s even expressed an interest in getting an ipod to listen to podcasts on her many cross country trips to visit assorted kids and grandkids.

    Without embracing the technology she, along with many others, would be far more limited in their ability to connect with others and to pursue their interests without assistance from other family members or friends.

  29. #29 Bo Dixen Pedersen
    August 5, 2008

    The whole point of the internet is PARTICIPATION.

    If you’re not on it – you don’t understand it simple as that.

    Even those ON IT don’t understand all the intricacies and possibilities.

    Anthropology of youtube – this is 1 site.

  30. #30 Bo Dixen Pedersen
    August 5, 2008

    link to the lecture itself.

    sry for doublepost.

  31. #31 Tasha
    August 5, 2008

    Wow, this is a really interesting discussion, and it’s full of positions I’d never even thought about before. Coturnix, I think you made a very interesting point about how the internet has turned younger generations into more global thinkers. As technology advances, this is only bound to continue. And bsci, you are definitely right in pointing out how the basic infrastructure of our communications systems affect how they can and will be used. There is a lot to be said for keeping up with the latest and greatest when it comes to internet connectivity. Geographic areas within the United States and countries outside the U.S. that do not have these capabilities are quickly slipping behind, and it is bound to have vast reprocussions – in terms of education, economics, and everything in between.

    I personally work for a research unit in a state government agency. We constantly put out publications and reports that have the possibility of influencing public policy. In the ink and paper days these reports were printed and mailed to interested parties – but we’ve discontinued that practice for the vast majority of our publications. They are now available on the web as pdf documents. Think of how much information is out there (from valid sources, not random websites) that is completely out of the reach of someone who is not internet literate. Yeah, sure, you can have staffers who find everything for you, but do you really want all your information filtered through someone else?

  32. #32 KeithM
    August 5, 2008

    The thing about internet usage is this: McCain is admitting that’s he’s basically cut himself off from one of the most important sources of information available. It would be like saying he refuses to watch TV news, or listen to the radio, or read a newspaper. What would you think about someone who said that?

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