A Vote For Science

The other day I was reading this really fantastic blog and came across the following campaign video. This is for Ashwin Madia, running for Congress in Minnesota’s Third Congressional District. Have a look:

Is there something interesting about this particular ad?

Listen. My understanding is that if Barack Obama is elected as POTUS, he will be the first president in the United States of America who already, on his own, uses email.

Let that sink in for a moment.

I am probably typical of a scientist/academic, in that I was using email in the conventional sense in the 1980s (bitnet and Compuserve) and have been using it more or less ever since. Others may have gotten on board a little later. I remember the times when as teachers/instructors/professors we were not allowed by policy to assume that all students have uniform access to email. I remember that reversing, at Harvard, in about Nineteen Ninety Something, when dorms were wired, computer labs were opened, and financial aid was restructured to cover laptops. We were told “Go ahead …. assume each student has email. It is our official way to communicate with them, and we’re telling them all to get on board. We send them their email account details weeks before they arrive at school.”

So suddenly, everybody was using email. Well, not everybody. Harvard is, as we all know, always first off the block in these matters because they are loaded with money (I quickly add that when I moved to the University of Minnesota, I discovered that Harvard’s IT system totally sucked in comparison and that did not surprise me a all.) Nonetheless, it was not many years before school after school became increasingly email-dependent.

So, kinda suddenly, everybody was using email.

But not really. My field of study (Anthropology) is not one of those heavily funded sciences where you arrive as a graduate student more or less set up with financial aid. I had a really sweet three year NSF fellowship and some other money, but I, like most anthropologists, had to do what they call “dipping into one’s own principal.” For some students that apparently meant delving into the family trust fund, but for me, not so much. (“Don’t expect anything from us! Your dad put himself through college on his own, you know. We’re planning on going to the grave with exactly one penny in our pocket.” … Dad, as it turns out, went to school on the GI bill. And when he died, he had five hundred bucks in his pocket. Which my siblings and I pilfered and blew at the casino. But that’s another story…)

Anyway, for me dipping into principal meant getting a paying job, so I went to work, and quickly settled at the Kennedy School of Government. Working at the K-School was sometimes difficult, but it was also an excellent learning experience for me, and lots of interesting things happened there. But I want to tell you about just two of them.

One person I worked for was the Director of Research. So he was in charge of the parts of the K-school that facilitated all the research done there, which mainly means certain funding mechanisms for grad students and promotion of research. He was also a very productive scholar. In the six months I worked there, he published 12 papers and edited one book.

And he used email. But he was one of a very few individuals at his level who did. The dean of the school (and there were two different deans during this time) did not use email. Their assistants had to transcribe and translate to and from this medium. The Nobel prize winner down the hall from me did not use email. The guy across the hall from me, who later became a Cabinet Secretary did not use email. And so on. All of the somewhat older higher -status individuals were from the tradition of having a secretary and/or a wife who did this kind of thing … letters and typing and stuff … for them. None of these people could use a keyboard, let alone a machine to which a keyboard is attached.

Then I moved to a different position: I was to be the part time administrative assistant of a famous journalist. He had just left his position as the Meet the Press guy to run an institute on Press and Politics at the K-Shool. I don’t like telephones, but I liked answering the phone at that job. It was always someone like Edmund Musky or Walter Mondale or Sander Vanocur or somebody.

Anyway, this venerable older gentleman had two writing machines in his palatial office. One was a state of the art AT computer hooked up to a giant, Pageview WYSIWYG monitor. The other was a Remington Manual. He used the Remmington. The Pageview gathered dust.

Again, even in the writing business (though admittedly this was TV journalism mainly) we were in the long and drawn out cusp of technology adoption.

So here’s the point: Over the last ten or twenty years technology adoption has experienced a very slow moving dawn. This is the kind of dawn we experience way up North in places like Minnesota: The sun takes forever to go up or down (Minnesotans are always shocked to see how fast the sun drops below the horizon or how fast the moon pops up!) A particular class of people (in the West) are a decade or two behind the rest of us in personal technology adoption, and this groups is not electronically benighted because they are poor or have no access. They are benighted because they are rich and tend to get taken care of.

Among the very people who have had their hands on the levers of power for the last few decades there is a shockingly large number who have never really learned to use email or surf the web. In the world of technology, there is an alarming overlap between The Elite and The Ignorant. In a world in which we expect technology to save us, this is disturbing. Moreover, this disconnect between technological progress and personal adoption may be greater in politics than in other fields.

Now recall the Madia ad I showed you above. This is what struck me when I saw this ad: If that was Ronald Regan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, John McCain, or any of the other Old White Guys (of either party) it would be extra creepy to see the surreal transitions this ad shows. But a young guy, a vet just back from Iraq, a newly minted lawyer, a guy who could be … oh, I dunno … a blogger or something, does not look that strange in this strange setting. You have no difficulty whatsoever believing that Ashwin Madia and hundreds like him in similar stages of their political careers … running for their first office … actually know (with skill) how to use all of those devices and more.

I think it might be important that Barack Obama knows how to use email and John McCain does not.


  1. #1 Glendon Mellow
    September 18, 2008

    Well said, Greg.

    As a Canadian, I tend to agree. Some of our national party leaders recently received some fresh lessons about the internet. Some, like Jack Layton of the N.D.P have Facebook pages.

    When some leaders complained about having the upstart Green party leader Elizabeth May in the televised debates, Layton and other leaders received a torrent of emails and Facebook wall messages demanding she be included, many from their own constituents.

    The internet certainly seems to be changing Canadian politics.

  2. #2 bradm
    September 18, 2008

    I think there is very little correlation between the ability to lead a country and whether or not a person uses email. Perhaps this is because I don’t expect technology to save us.

  3. #3 Sigmund
    September 18, 2008

    Don’t worry Greg, Sarah Palin knows all about using email.

  4. #4 Stephanie Z
    September 18, 2008

    Brad, I think that the most important thing to note about a candidate who uses email versus one who doesn’t is what that tells us about which country they plan to lead. The people who don’t use email are the few who don’t have to and the many who can’t afford to. A candidate who is perfectly happy not to use email is embedded in that dichotomous system and planning to stay there.

  5. #5 Jennifer Ouellette
    September 18, 2008

    If I lived in your state, I would totally vote for this guy. :)

  6. #6 Blair
    September 18, 2008

    It has been well documented that the primary reason why Senator McCain does not use email is that as a result of injuries suffered in the service of his country he cannot use a keyboard. It has also been well documented that his assistants use email and he apparently is familiar with how email works.

    As an academic you are expected to be able to type as you prepare your papers/writing and it would be quite surprising if you didn’t use a keyboard. For those with disabilities that preclude their access to a keyboard other alternatives are available. They can dictate their thoughts to others or they can use that old-fashioned device called the telephone. Just because a disability is not readily visible does not make it any less of a disability.

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    September 18, 2008

    Blair, people I know who are my age and have disabilities that preclude typing still use email. People of my parents’ generation who have disabilities that make viewing a screen difficult still use email. This is what adaptive technology is for. McCain doesn’t use adaptive technology for the same reason he doesn’t use email. He doesn’t have to. He has people for that.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    September 18, 2008

    Blair: I know a lot of people with disabilities that preclude their use of the keyboard, and they still use email. None of them have assistants.

    Wouldn’t that be nice to have an assistant.

    Wait a minute, I kinda do have an assistant. Let me see if I can get her to send an email for me.

    OK, I’m back. Now, if only I can figure out how to get this keyboard out of my ….

  9. #9 Strider
    September 18, 2008

    How dare you question John McCain on (email)! When he was a POW he didn’t have (email)!

    h/t to Stephen Colbert via Ed Brayton

  10. #10 Clark
    September 18, 2008

    Quick – how many emails did Clinton send during his Presidency? (Answer: 2 – one a test to see if it was working)

  11. #11 greg laden
    September 18, 2008

    And the second one to the IT department because it wasn’t.

    …Bidum dum…

  12. #12 Blair
    September 18, 2008

    My point is twofold and maybe I wasn’t clear enough so let’s try again:

    1) The use of adaptive technologies includes accepting assistance from others. The fact that a disabled person does not use email personally does not preclude those individuals who provide them assistance from using the technology and makes no assumptions about the individual’s understanding of the technology.

    2) In the post above it appears that the fact that McCain doesn’t use a technology is being used to make the assumption that he doesn’t know how to use the technology or how the technology works. It paints him as a Luddite who cannot be trusted with modern technology. My nephew is not old enough to drive and were he put behind the wheel of a car would likely kill someone with his inexperience. He can, however, discuss in excruciating detail the intricacies of fuel injectors and debates endlessly on the pros and cons of engine set-ups in cars. I have 20+ years of accident-free driving but my knowledge of the internal combustion engine is limited to the knowledge of where to put the gas and oil and how to pull out a credit card to pay for regular service. I as a regular user of the technology am far less knowledgeable about it then a non-user with an inquisitive mind.

    To summarize, I know little about McCain as a person and being a Canadian don’t have a horse in the race, but I find it disingenuous that otherwise intelligent folk blow out their logic circuits when talking about your upcoming election. Mr. McCain doesn’t use the technology because it is extremely uncomfortable for him to do so and alternative technologies, like the telephone, allow him to do his job without having to resort to the discomfort on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the technology.

  13. #13 dEb
    September 18, 2008

    Being actually from Minnesota, and luckily in the 3rd Congressional District, I actually get to vote for Ashwin Madia. I’ve met him, and he’s the kind of guy who not only could *use* all those devices, but he’s also a guy who *gets* the world in which we’re living and the direction in which it’s moving — and make no mistake, whether we support that move or not, the rest of the world will go on evolving and using technology with or without us. Madia’s the kind of guy who’s going to work hard to keep us out in front of the pack (or, perhaps, get us back to the front of the pack). The Paulsens (his competitor) of the world (or the McCalins for that matter) would hinder our success through their reticence to adapt to new technologies and their unwillingness to (financially) support a solid educational system from early childhood through post-secondary education.

  14. #14 SimonG
    September 18, 2008

    I’m not sure that it’s a big deal. When I started my career in IT a couple of decades ago not every employee had a computer terminal, (these were the days before PCs, so these were green-screen dumb terminals). A lot of managers tried to get a terminal as a sort of status symbol. At that time I felt quite strongly that they shouldn’t have them, as it was their job to manage and supervise, and they had staff to sort out the reports and stuff on the computer.

    These days businesses tend to have stream-lined their staff, certainly doing away with a lot of administrative jobs, but I think the principle is still sound. If McCain has people to do such stuff for him, why should he do it? It doesn’t really offer him any benefit in his job.

    It’s important that he understands it, and I’d be a bit concerned if he didn’t use a cell ‘phone or PDA. (Though my mother, who’s younger than McCain, still hasn’t quite got to grips with SMS.)

  15. #15 decrepitoldfool
    September 18, 2008

    It makes a big difference if you can’t use modern communication technologies. And I don’t buy the ‘handicap’ thing one bit. We have students here who manage email despite having almost no use of their hands at all.

    If I’d ever heard McCain say one thing that made me think he understood technology at all, it would be different, but I haven’t. And mediating all your communications through ‘your people’ is like a game of telephone – it multiplies the chance for misunderstandings. To say nothing of the possibilities for being manipulated by them.

    The rest of us, even top executives, use asynchronous communication technologies. Is McCain one of those extremely rare deep thinkers who is worth the disconnect just to have access to his historic insights? Or is there a simpler explanation?

  16. #16 Joe
    September 18, 2008

    I suppose what you are really asking is whether we can afford to have a national chief executive that doe not have a certain minimal first-hand experience with Information Technology, e.g., e-mail. In my professional experience a more tech-savvy executive is a better qualified executive, so certainly the fact that John McCain is on par with George Bush in this regard does not help him with this reader. On the other hand, those that do not have any IT background do not use e-mail and are openly skeptical of all that “Internet Stuff” may find comfort in McCain’s technological ignorance. Depends which way this country wants to go, I guess.
    As decrepitoldfool points out, the fact that McCain is somewhat handicapped in the use of his hands does not excuse his technological ignorance. I think we’ve had enough leader of “superior” character that tried to make up for their ignorance by “staying the course” whatever the consequences. But that’s just me.

  17. #17 Dan S.
    September 18, 2008

    It has been well documented that the primary reason why Senator McCain does not use email is that as a result of injuries suffered in the service of his country he cannot use a keyboard.

    No. Karl Rove claims that the primary reason McCain doesn’t use email was [etc.].N Now, just because Rove says something doesn’t automatically mean it’s false, and this claim isn’t that improbable -after all, McCain certainly did suffer permanent damage from the torture he received as a POW which has left him with physical limitations – but to the best of my knowledge* it has not been well documented, and there are various statements and coverage and such that seems to present a conflicting picture.

    * Granted, I haven’t really been following this recently, having been distracted by Zapaterogate, the Palin follies, etc.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.