Don't Know Their Yahoo From Their YouTube

By Garrett M. Graff
Sunday, December 2, 2007

In Wednesday's CNN/YouTube debate, Sen. John McCain let slip a fairly stunning admission. The Arizona Republican assured viewers that he wouldn't need to lean on his vice president, George W. Bush-style, for national security expertise, but might "rely on a vice president" for help on less important issues such as "information technology, which is the future of this nation's economy."

Hold it. Would we allow a serious presidential candidate to admit to knowing so little about any other key subject?

The problem goes far beyond McCain, who's usually rather tech-friendly. Search for Sen. Ted Stevens on Google, and one of the first results you get about the man who until this year was third in line for the presidency is his famously clueless characterization of the Internet as a "series of tubes." President Bush's similarly addled descriptions of the Web (he has referred to "the Google") have been pure gold for "Saturday Night Live." After Bush alluded during a 2004 presidential debate to rumors "on the, uh, Internets" about an Iraq war draft, Will Forte (who impersonates the president on the show) gleefully played Bush saying, "I think the problem here may be more of a question of getting rid of the bad Internets and keeping the good Internets. You know, 'cause I think we can all agree, there're just too many Internets."

In fact, technology shouldn't be such a laughing matter.

As a nation, we wouldn't tolerate such ignorance about any other area of policymaking. Would we be amused if it came out that Joe Biden, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wasn't clear about the difference between Shiites and Sunnis or couldn't find Sudan on a map? How about if Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate banking committee, wasn't entirely sure what the term "subprime mortgage" meant? You can be sure that if Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, fumbled over what a "dirty bomb" is, pundits and pols on both sides of the aisle would have her head. So why is it so funny that the octogenarian Stevens, the top Republican senator on the committee that regulates the Web, doesn't know the difference between the Internet and an e-mail? (Some of this stuff is technical, but really now.)

Some presidential candidates -- you know, the ones always talking about ensuring that the United States can compete in a fast-moving, tech-savvy world -- seem to be getting a pass on technological literacy. Answering a campaign-trail question earlier this year, Mitt Romney, the former entrepreneur whose high-tech background should make him the best-informed candidate, didn't seem to know the difference between the video-sharing Web site YouTube (then the fourth most popular site in the world, according to and MySpace, the social networking site (then ranked sixth). What if John Edwards had shown that he didn't know the difference between Indonesia, the fourth most populous country, and Pakistan, the sixth most populous? Or the difference between Chevron, No. 4 on the Fortune 500 list, and No. 6 General Electric? It would have been a huge gaffe, a multi-day story in which pundit after pundit decreed him unfit to lead the nation. Romney's similar faux pas didn't even muss his electoral hair.

So why is it that we blithely allow our leaders to be ignorant of the force that, probably more than any other, will drive and define the nation's economic success and reshape its society over the next 20 years? Is it because we're used to our parents or grandparents struggling to program the VCR (yes, they still use VCRs) so that it doesn't blink "12:00" all the time, or because we think it's cute that they grew up in simpler times? The humor newspaper the Onion teased that demographic earlier this fall with a mock headline reading, "Google Launches 'The Google' for Older Adults." The Onion "quoted" the project's fictional director as saying, "The Google will have all the same information currently found on regular Google, but with the added features of not stealing your credit-card numbers or giving your computer all kinds of viruses." Sure, it's sort of endearing that our parents and grandparents can't figure out how to make a cellphone work or use emoticons on AOL Instant Messenger. But our economic future and security require that we have a higher standard for our leaders.

Part of the problem is simply generational. According to the Senate historian, the Senate is the oldest it has ever been, with an average age of 62 during the 110th Congress. Most of the leaders of Senate committees had already graduated from college by the time TVs became widespread in American homes in the 1950s. As the United States advances into the information age, it can't afford to have its leaders' base of knowledge be rooted in the industrial era, lest their intellectual capacities come to resemble such relics as the decaying steel mills of Pittsburgh.

In past generations, the U.S. government turned to men such as the brilliant and forward-thinking Vannevar Bush, who led the nation's science policy during World War II and got the government to invest in the programs and research that helped invent the computer age. Today, the nation's best minds quickly end up in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street, where their entrepreneurial spirit and lust for "the new new thing" is powering an economy that's increasingly detached from the government overseeing it.

This disconnect points to a major problem: The new economy still lacks a political infrastructure. The older industries are still the best organized, most entrenched and therefore most powerful. They can land the meetings with officials that lead to government loans; their armies of lobbyists can operate in the back rooms, slipping in tax breaks and increasing the competition for newcomers.

Then consider what happened when Google co-founder Sergey Brin -- then the 16th-richest man in the world -- came to Washington in June 2006 to speak with members of Congress. He found himself on a humiliatingly disorganized journey and was mocked in a Washington Post headline as a "tourist." "I think we are putting in a pretty good effort," Brin said, "but we don't have, you know, 30 or 100 years, or however long telcos have been lobbying Congress."

This goes beyond one hastily planned trip, of course; Google's initial missteps are a familiar story to anyone who followed Microsoft, Yahoo or Cisco Systems' early years. "My view of governments used to be that the further we stayed away the better it was," Cisco chief executive John Chambers said, "but boy was that naive, because not only do we have the similar agenda as business, but we have the same challenges that must be addressed in collaboration." But because the Internet economy is so new, one 2006 study found that older firms are still outspending it on government lobbying by a margin of more than three to one. Perhaps, then, it's no surprise that government often seems more interested in propping up the past than in looking to the future -- and that's in no small part because our leaders don't understand what lies ahead. "In this city, I don't think they get it yet," said Raymond Scheppach, the executive director of the National Governors Association.

The 2008 presidential election is a chance to change that approach, but to do so, we must ensure that those seeking to lead actually do know what they think about the future. Few of the candidates have released comprehensive tech-policy plans, even though many of them have made the ritual yes-I'm-hip trek to speak at Google's headquarters. Then on Nov. 14, Sen. Barack Obama became one of the first to lay out an "innovation agenda," focused on using open technology to boost new-economy jobs and on reshaping education to fit the challenges of this century, but his approach seems more the exception than the rule.

In fact, last week's CNN/YouTube debate almost didn't happen, because the bulk of the GOP candidates didn't want to participate. The first debate, scheduled for September, was scuttled, and it took intense online protests by Republican activists to cajole the two front-runners, Romney and Rudy Giuliani, to show up. It's telling that the only two candidates who agreed to the original debate were McCain (that gaffe aside) and Ron Paul, whose maverick, straight-talking presidential campaigns have benefited enormously from online energy and fundraising. As Patrick Ruffini, one of the GOP's top Internet thinkers, said earlier this fall, "The response to stuff like this seems to be . . . crickets." There's got to be an onramp to that famed information superhighway around Washington somewhere. Maybe we should try to find it on The GoogleMaps?

Garrett M. Graff, an editor at large at Washingtonian magazine, was the first blogger admitted to a White House briefing. He is the author of "The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web and the Race for the White House."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company