Outlook: Your Pick of the Technologically Illiterate

Garrett M. Graff
Washingtonian Editor-at-Large; Author, "The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House"
Monday, December 3, 2007; 12:00 PM

"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? ... Sure, it's sort of endearing that our parents and grandparents can't figure out how to make a cellphone work or use smiley faces/emoticons on AOL Instant Messenger. But our economic future and security require that we have a higher standard for our leaders."

Washingtonian Editor-at-Large Garrett M. Graff, author of "The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House" was online Monday, Dec. 3 at noon ET to discuss why the U.S. needs a president with an understanding of technology and its future impact on the nation, and why we give the candidates a pass when the fall short on the issue.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors


Garrett M. Graff: Happy Monday! Thanks for joining me here today. I've gotten a ton of comments about my Outlook piece from yesterday arguing that we need to hold our leaders to a higher standard of tech knowledge in an information-driven economy.

The piece grew out of my book, "The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House," which came out last week and examines how technology and globalization is reshaping the 2008 political landscape.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I remember when President George H.W. Bush was fascinated learning how the electronic checkout machine worked. Was that an early indication that presidents are too insulated in the White House from changing technologies, as presidents have people who handle technologies for them?

Garrett M. Graff: That's actually an interesting story -- one, sort of like the "Al Gore invented the Internet meme," where the media screwed it up for history. I remembered the same story, so I went back and looked up the details as part of researching my book and this article.

Bush 41 went to a grocers' convention in 1988; at that point grocery store scanners had been in use for over a decade. The New York Times' Andrew Rosenthal wrote the original story that caused so much grief, teasing then-Vice President Bush for being out of touch. Truth is, he was being shown new advances in scanning technology and, according to videotape of the incident, was suitably impressed with a new technology.

Now, though, all we remember is that the Bush 41 seemed clueless about a regular piece of peoples' lives.

I think, though, your larger point is true: Leaders can quickly get too isolated from the technologies regular people use. President Clinton has a scene in his memoir where he talks about how he had never been on the Internet before Election Night 1998 when he watched the results come in live online. He was amazed.


Takoma Park, Md.: Obama has talked about using Internet communication to tap into the vast collective expertise of the American public, or something along those lines. Is this what you are talking about, novel applications? Or are you saying you want your president to be someone who can fix his own network's IT problems? Or what? Thanks for clarifying this. Very intriguing article.

Garrett M. Graff: This is one of the aspects of the piece where I've gotten the most comments so far -- thanks for asking about it. I'm not arguing that our leaders need to be able to set up their own wireless routers or configure a POP email account. I'm arguing that I don't even think many of our leaders have a clear understanding that America's economic strength in the next decade or two at least will come from the Internet. If they did, they'd be pushing for more investment in wireless Internet, broadband technologies, or working to close the digital divide between wired communities and unwired communities. Europe and Asia are far ahead of us on a lot of tech-related issues and recognizing how important tech is to their economies.

A century ago, any city that wasn't on a railroad withered away. Today, communities without access to broadband will be left in the dust too.


ROFL: So should we give each candidate a Linux CD and see how much trouble they have installing it? And if so, which distribution? Not Ubuntu, surely, since it's so darn easy. Perhaps Debian, and ask them to build a secure server?

Garrett M. Graff: I'd be content if I thought they just understood what open source is and that Firefox, Linux, and Wikipedia, for whatever their various faults are, are all a fascinating sociological undertaking.

How many of the presidential candidates do you think could name even one open source project if asked?


Arlington, Va.: What a snooty-toned article -- especially the crack about people who still use VCRs. Not all of us buy into the myth that newer technology is necessarily better. What it almost always is, is more expensive. Frankly, I don't care if the president doesn't follow YouTube, Facebook or whatever. I assume the presidential candidates have lives already. I do care that they be cognizant of the issues relating to how the Internet is delivered, regulated and taxed, but it is an immensely complicated field that requires expert advice. No candidate can be an expert on everything, nor should they be. They're running for an executive position -- not tech support.

Garrett M. Graff: Ahh, again. I couldn't agree with you more that candidates aren't applying to run tech support -- but they do need to know some basic tech business knowledge in order to make the decisions about where to focus our nation's resources and technologies going forward.


Washington: Garrett -- great piece yesterday. I know that your book centers on technology in politics, but was wondering if you believed this acceptance of technological ignorance pervades other industries -- I'm thinking of the current writer's strike (partially about Internet revenue) and of course the RIAA issues.

Garrett M. Graff: I think it does pervade all industries right now. We've passed in recent years from an era where "the Interweb" was something done by the CEO's high school nephew to a place where we recognize that it takes real professionals with advanced knowledge.


Laurel, Md.: But on the bright side, they're not having their identities stolen through online fraud, shopping on eBay when they're supposed to be working, or looking at porn.

Garrett M. Graff: That's very true. There's a scene in my book where Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who represents Silicon Valley, said in 2001 that she didn't think the Senate should be on the Internet until they got rid of porn. I imagine everyone realized that was a losing campaign.


Boston: Do you really believe there aren't any candidates who understand the "series of tubes"? How would you rank the candidates regarding their tech-savvy?

Garrett M. Graff: I think some candidates understand it better than others, but even in the cases of candidates like Ron Paul this year, John McCain in 2000, or Howard Dean in 2004, the candidates themselves don't often have a deep knowledge of technology. What's great about the strength of the Internet is how it allows their supporters to build online campaigns without the campaign's help. Ron Paul's record-breaking $4.2 million fundraising day last month was almost entirely supporter-drive. The campaign had little to do with it.


Oakton, Va.: How about asking candidates what their policies toward net neutrality might be?

Garrett M. Graff: Good point -- I'd wager that most of the candidates wouldn't know how to answer that one but it's an issue that will have huge implications for how the tech economy develops.


Burlington, Vt.: How different is the situation in the 2008 campaign than it was in 2004? Howard Dean didn't really know much about the Internet or the forces that propelled his campaign (like Meet-Ups) at the time it was underway.

Garrett M. Graff: Hi Burlington! You're getting a lot of snow up there right now, aren't you?

The situation is different today versus four years ago because the tools for grassroots, voter-generated content are so much more powerful now. We've seen a lot of very smart, very catchy viral videos and compilations come out of the efforts of regular supporters¿many of them better than what the professionals on the campaign are putting out.


Santa Fe, N.M.: "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?" Or why is it that we blithely allow our leaders to be ignorant of the force that, probably more than any other, has driven and defined human development, discoveries from which will reshape its society in the next 20 years?

I'm talking about evolution, of course, which some number of the Republican candidates (and probably our current president) actively refuse to believe. And then we could also add the apparent inability of both candidates and current office-holders to envision the destruction caused by nuclear weapons, and on and on ... no balanced understanding of what a Mars program will do to everything else NASA does ... an inability to evaluate whether contractors are blowing smoke about new weapons or missile defense systems. ... The answer to all of this probably relates to the general comprehension and devaluing of the understanding of science by people in general. So, sadly, I guess we can't expect any of it to be corrected any time soon.

Garrett M. Graff: Santa Fe, you speak to a larger point: The Republican Party in recent years has had an uncomfortable relationship with science in general. President Bush's administration has been criticized repeatedly for altering reports, playing down scientific studies with which it disagrees, and even until recently downplaying the significance of global warming and climate change.

There are a lot of issues where the scientific community's consensus is much stronger than we may feel based on the "balanced" approach of media organization's reports. I call this "he said, she said, who knows" journalism. We need reporters to stand up for consensus conclusions more.


Indianapolis: Hi. Great topic for discussion ... I have two questions: How do some/any of the presidential candidates organize their campaign staffs for Internet and Web outreach? Do you think there will be a time when the Internet/Web Strategists will be as important as Pollsters in a campaign? (In other words, having that direct line of access and influence to the actual candidate.) Thanks. The Gurus: Online Political Operatives, Such as Mindy Finn and Stephen Smith, Want New Media to Send a New Message (Post, May 4)

Garrett M. Graff: It's funny Indianapolis, you've hit on a interesting point: Republicans and Democrats even have different words and terms for their Internet operations. The GOP calls it "e-campaigning" while the Democrats mostly call it "new media." Romney has an "e-campaign director" whereas Obama has a "new media director."

Their roles are definitely growing in importance. The challenge is seeing the Internet as a tool/forum to integrate into all aspects of the campaign -- field, communications, polling, fundraising, etc. -- and not just as a money machine.


Seattle: I understand where the idea of the Internet, Wikipedia, etc. come into politics, but where should blogging, LiveJournal and other P2P tools enter into a leader's daily routine?

Garrett M. Graff: I was at YearlyKos this summer, a convention of progressive bloggers, where all the Democratic candidates came and spoke and they were asked whether they'll have a White House blogger if elected. All said they would.

I imagine that whomever wins in 2008 will have a White House blogger, but that the President himself or herself won't blog personally. Whenever the President needs a platform, the TV cameras are only a few steps away.


Washington: Garrett, good article -- thanks. What would you think of the idea of the next president committing to a Cabinet-level office of Technology Advisor, along the same lines of the presidential Science Advisor? Or maybe we just need to expand the science advisor's title to include technology.

Garrett M. Graff: Yes, that's a great idea. Another big step would be restoring the Office of Technological Assessment, which closed amid the budget cuts of the Gingrich Revolution and once offered important tech advice and outside counsel to Congress. It's a little ironic today that former Speaker Gingrich is now one of the leading thinkers on the future of politics in an age of technology and globalization.


Vienna, Va.: Sorry, but I have to disagree with the main thrust of your article. The Internet is, in the main, a communications tool. It would be helpful if the president were familiar with it, but to say that such knowledge is important goes too far. If the president needs to know, he can easily hire someone to help out. It's far more important for the president to understand the bond market, or Middle Eastern history, or the text of the U.S. Constitution, or the long-term effects of compound interest (both earning it and paying it), or a host of other subjects. All of these are far more important than technological fluency.

Garrett M. Graff: I'll disagree with you there -- settling the conflicts in the Middle East pale in comparison to the economic choices we have to make in the coming years about how America will compete in a "flat world." We've already lost much of this decade to the Middle East, at the same time that countries around the world are racing to catch up with us on an economic competitiveness front.

Short of a world war or nuclear holocaust, if we don't get this American competitiveness question right, no other decision that the next President will make will matter as much.


Washington: Maybe one solution would be to force all the candidates to create World of Warcraft avatars and battle it out online for primary victories. Think of the money that would be saved, and it would be very telling to see what character each candidate chose. To add intellectual content, I suppose they could debate a health care question before launching any attack spell or attempting to cleave their opponent with a battle axe.

Garrett M. Graff: How do you propose doing that? Would each party organize a guild and battle each other (Dems. vs. GOP) or would candidates be able to gather their supporters for an attack on each other?

On that front, John Edwards' campaign headquarters in Second Life was actually vandalized earlier this year.


Seattle: How would you test a candidate's or leader's tech savvy? An invitation to a debate or planned demonstration could be "practiced," but so much of tech savvy is predicated on understanding the basics and being able to respond on one's feet (especially to the Blue Screen of Death)...

Garrett M. Graff: I'm not sure there needs to be a test per se Seattle, but at least candidates should be conversant on issues of great tech importance -- wireless, broadband, spectrums, and net neutrality to name a few.


Falls Church, Va.: Hello Garrett. In general I agree with the content of your piece from yesterday's -- it's the tone I find offensive. I am a part of the clueless generation of "parents and grandparents" that you snidely sweep aside with a wink and a nod. I am also an IT professional who understands the technology at a very deep level. I resent your insinuation that "old equals clueless," but your point that "clueless politician equals bad" is well taken.

Garrett M. Graff: Sorry you were offended Falls Church. My point wasn't to make fun of the "old equals clueless" but instead to ask why we find that standard acceptable? It shouldn't be a matter of age -- it's a matter of interest. I think that many leaders just aren't interested in technology; they think it's beyond them.

Old shouldn't have to equal clueless. I've heard from many "old" people in the last day with comments along the lines of yours, but we need more people (and more of our leaders) to be people like you.

That said, some of this is generational and we have to admit that. Wired magazine this month has a funny piece about how at the competitive texting tournament, a 13-year-old beat everyone else to win -- and that if you're over 20 you're over the hill in the texting world.

We'll all be swept aside by the Matrix and powerful robots some day soon, don't worry.


Bowie, Md.: Serious Presidential candidates are generally 45-70 years old. At my well-networked office, I don't think anyone in that age group uses instant messaging, although they're okay with e-mail. Just a minor point. My major concern is whether democracy is capable of keeping up with technology. Okay, technology overcame President Bush's objections to embryonic stem cell research. But because information tech moves very fast and democracy and its legal system don't, are we losing the race to regulate it?

Garrett M. Graff: No, Bowie, at a fundamental level, I don't think government can keep up with technology. Our ethics and values alone are having trouble keeping up, let alone the slow wheels of small d democratic government, where bills can take years to work through Congress.

That's all the more reason why leaders need to be able to think about these technological advances in terms of decades. Eisenhower saw the need for interstate commerce in the industrial mass production 1950s and so championed the highway system. Today, we can't even seem to build a broadband network for the country. I was in India in February and could get on my Verizon cell phone the text messages from the District's emergency alert system. You still can't make a cell phone call in the New York City subways.

Wow -- lots of questions. I'm trying to get to as many as I can.


Atlanta: It seems obvious we won't have a tech-savvy President this time around. Realistically, how long do you think it will take until we get one?

Garrett M. Graff: It's an interesting question -- but one way to think of this election is whether we can find someone who at least understands the broad landscape of the new world and the decisions that need to be made to get ahead.

Here in Washington, Adrian Fenty has made a name for himself with his Batman-like utility belt of BlackBerrys. I think we'll get to tech-savvy leaders but it might take awhile.


Washington: Which candidates of either party use computers for anything more than word processing? Do the candidates know the difference between fission and fusion? Do they know that they can use Google and get answers to the question?

Garrett M. Graff: Wait, are you using "The Google"? Which Internet can I find that on?


ROFL: At what point do you think knowledge of information technology (and open source, etc.) becomes a campaign issue? I know from personal conversations, for example, that my former congresswoman, Katherine Harris, was conversant with at least a few open-source projects, and that George W. Bush -- despite his family's well-known tendency to use Macs -- has at least a few Linux-hip guys hidden in the bowels of the Old Executive Office Building. But this doesn't mean either one of this pair has gotten my vote. Is there a way to make IT awareness a part of anyone's campaign platform, or does it really matter compared to other issues?

Garrett M. Graff: Well, my book argues that it needs to be this election, that's where "the First Campaign" idea comes from.

We can't wait much longer for our leaders to start talking about technology. A lot of them have been trekking to Google to give speeches, but that doesn't mean they've been thinking about tech policy.

All parts of U.S. public policy need to be retooled for the information age -- it's not just a matter of networks and IT. Technology needs to be prioritized in education; better integrating tech into health care would save lives, money, and make the system easier to navigate; our dependence on oil and our environmental impact could be lessened through tech advances. If we get serious about these investments and changes as a country, who knows where we could be in twenty years?


Re: Seattle and Testing: Seattle again. My question was "how do you separate those that understand tech's place in society and the economy from those who can read cue cards"?

Garrett M. Graff: Ask them what does "The World Is Flat" mean to them? How should the U.S. compete in a world where so many jobs could be done remotely from India, Hungary, or China? Where should our jobs come from? How should we get there?

And ask them why is it that the Japanese, Koreans, and most of Europe has more advanced cellular technology than we do?


Washington: Don't forget -- McCain was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee before Stevens. If he's asking for a vice president with tech expertise (like Al Gore, don't you know) it says something about his stewardship of the committee.

Garrett M. Graff: But McCain should get some points for admitting what he doesn't know. At least he recognizes that he'd need help on that front. I guess Mark Zuckerberg is still too young to be vice president, but maybe Bill Gates would be interested since he plans on leaving Microsoft.


Washington: Garrett, while the idea of Democratic and Republican guilds battling it out for online supremacy sounds appealing and amusing, it seems to me the biggest challenge in getting politicians to focus on these issues is the lack of interest by voters in these issues. Recent polling lists health care, Iraq, terrorism, abortion and immigration as the top issues with "the economy" mixed in (and that probably translates to wages and job security more than IT). Nobody votes based on whether there is one Internet tube or two, or whether The Google is more helpful than The Yahoo. Thirteen-year-old texters can't vote, and 18-21 year old wannabe texters don't.

Garrett M. Graff: Ahh! But here's where our political system falls short: the Internet and technology is a key part of all of those issues. We won't succeed in fixing "the economy" or "health care" without some serious tech thinking and investment.

Upon further reflection, why don't we replace the primary system with a Halo 3 tournament?


Garrett M. Graff: Well that's about all the time we have today. Thanks for all your really good questions -- and if you're really interested in this topic, go read my full book on the subject. And feel free to e-mail me with further thoughts or questions: ggraff AT washingtonian DOT com.


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