Candidates Need Tech Savvy

There used to be a standard gambit when politicians addressed issues of information technology, particularly when their audiences were nontechnical: I think all this computer stuff is amazing—even if I can't figure how to turn on the darn things! Heck, I'm the kind of person whose VCR still keeps blinking 12 o'clock. This was thought to be a sentiment that would create a bond with the average voter, who presumably shared a similar confusion when it came to those newfangled contraptions.

Thankfully, those days are fading; the blinking-VCR trope is becoming as rare as a floppy disk. Americans today are more likely to see someone who boasts about his or her nonfamiliarity with technology as a sign of incompetence or just plain stupidity, as opposed to a character trait that signifies groundedness in what's real. The vast majority of Americans perform sophisticated digital tasks on a daily basis. Grandmas and grandpas e-mail digital photos of their cruise trip, and IM their kids in school. So a politician admitting that he or she can't bother to learn those things indicates a horse-and-buggy mentality. But more important is when politicians charged with regulating a technology seem to have little or no understanding of it. Remember Sen. Ted Stevens's statement that "an Internet was sent by my staff," which led to his explanation that the Net was "a series of tubes"?

No one demands that politicians to be able to hack code or even crack open a laptop to add memory. But just as we expect national legislators to educate themselves on military matters, it's reasonable to expect our leaders to school themselves on the digital movement that is not only the core of our economy but a transformative influence on the way Americans live, work and socialize.

One sign that things are improving in this regard is the prospect of a presidential election in which both major-party candidates actually have a sensible understanding of technology, if not necessarily a personal mastery. The remaining viable Democratic hopefuls, along with the all-but-official Republican nominee, have shown no interest in aligning themselves with techno-ignorance. Obama, Clinton, and McCain have all addressed tech-industry audiences and expounded knowledgably on policy issues like America's lost lead in broadband, a problem all have vowed to remedy. Both Barack Obama and John McCain have won the endorsement of the persnickety Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch, which focuses on Web 2.0 start-up companies. One disappointment: in answering a question from TechCrunch's founder, Michael Arrington, the 71-year-old McCain admitted that he was "illiterate" when it came to actually using computers. But Arrington later reported that McCain's staffers rushed to mitigate that statement, a sign that it's no longer cool to make such a confession.

Obama even charmed the geeks at Google during an appearance there when CEO Eric Schmidt jokingly asked him the kind of question posed to prospective employees: "How do you determine good ways of sorting one million 32-bit integers in two megabytes of RAM?" A poker-faced Obama showed a high comfort level with programmer talk when he replied, "I think the 'bubble sort' would be the wrong way to go."

Compare that with the lumbering tech dinosaur that was the Fred Thompson campaign. Techno-ignorance was hardly the only or even a main cause of Thompson's failure as a presidential candidate, but the crotchety actor/politician did manage to project a personality that screamed blinking-VCR in an age when some voters are young enough to not remember what a VCR was. Thompson did have a functional Web site, but the most prominent part of his Internet operation seemed to be the sale of branded merchandise. (I suspect that his campaign might have been funded by eBay for future auctions of Fred08 T-shirts and baby onesies.) The Thompson team also had a propensity to post soporific videos of the candidate reading a speech stuffed with platitudes (prime example: "Fred's Message to Iowa Voters," a 17-minute Ambien substitute). But the biggest digital blunder in Thompson's campaign came on Nov. 28, 2007, when CNN and YouTube sponsored a debate in St. Petersburg, Fla. In addition to being quizzed by Internet users, each prospective nominee was offered the chance to use the medium to express himself or his candidacy, in a one-minute YouTube video. True, none of the GOP debaters really grasped the viscerally direct nature of YouTube communication (only Rudy Giuliani dared to flirt with whimsy, by including King Kong among threats to the nation). But when it was Thompson's turn, the YouTube video he offered was a standard, lowball attack ad showing archive clips of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee making statements that reflected positions they later abandoned. There was no irony, humor, or humanity in Thompson's video. It was simply one more example of the kind of negative advertising one typically sees on TV before an election. And totally inappropriate as a creative YouTube expression.

I happened to be watching a live feed of the session at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and at that moment the employees watching the event were stunned into silence. The purity of Thompson's cluelessness was breathtaking, an Everest-level summit in the annals of missing the point. (The best possible YouTube campaign video, of course, would have been the candidate sitting on a bed, à la lonelygirl15, talking off the cuff to a Web cam.) Even the moderator of the debate, Anderson Cooper, was thrown off his game. After a second or two when he tried to craft a response, he finally burst out, "Senator Thompson, what's up with that?"

Making a clever YouTube video should never be a requirement for public office, but knowing how technology affects the lives of Americans, having an idea how to keep American businesses competitive in the digital age, and being able to use technology to increase the productivity and transparency of government are essentials for anyone who hopes to lead this country. A recycling plan for those blinking VCRs would be a bonus.