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.