Thursday, August 14, 2008

Does America really need a technologically illiterate President?

John McCain not only doesn't know how to email, he seems proud of his ignorance. Amanda Terkel looks at the issue:
Most of the tech talk surrounding McCain has so far focused on his self-admitted computer ignorance. "I'm an illiterate who has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get," McCain said in an interview with Yahoo/Politico earlier this year. Last month, McCain admitted that he has "never felt the particular need to e-mail."

Tech has put the McCain campaign on the defensive about whether a president needs to be actively engaged in the Internet to lead an increasingly wired country. At the tech-savvy Personal Democracy Forum conference in June, Mark Soohoo, McCain's deputy e-campaign director, drew snickers when he desperately insisted, "You don't necessarily have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country ... John McCain is aware of the Internet." [Snip]

The United States currently sticks out globally for having no national broadband policy -- a plan to give every American access to affordable high-speed Internet connections. Roughly half of the country's households still lack broadband connections, and the United States continues to fall behind. "Broadband will soon be an indispensable communication technology affecting the way we learn, the way we work, and the way we communicate," Charles Benton, chairman and CEO of the Benton Foundation, wrote in June. "However, at the dawn of this Digital Age, those who could benefit the most from this economically empowering technology are also those most likely to be left without access because of where they live or how much money they make."

Science and technology certainly haven't been priorities under the Bush administration. A 2005 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded, "The scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength." McCain has given little indication that he intends to be much different, and that has some tech experts worried.

"What concerns me is that [McCain] will do as George Bush did, which is to make technology an issue related to how he raises money to run the government or to fund campaigns, and not as an independent issue that is important to grow America," said Stanford University professor and Internet expert Lawrence Lessig. "Technology for the Bush administration is a total non-issue, even though that was the thing that drove most growth in 1992 to 2003. And the reason I think he'd be led to that is because [he's] a guy who doesn't understand anything about technology in the first place." [Snip]

McCain has a long record of blocking progress on tech issues. He has served as a member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation since coming to the Senate in 1987, and as chairman from 1997 to 2001, and again from 2003 to 2005. He oversaw the committee at a crucial point in history: the explosion of the Internet economy.

During McCain's tenure, the committee oversaw the implementation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the first major overhaul of U.S. telecom law in nearly 62 years. McCain had to choose whether to be pro-competition or pro-big business. In most instances, he chose the latter route, by opposing increased Internet access for schools and libraries, backing large mergers to benefit the telecom industry and supporting a virtual system of haves and have-nots. [Snip]

McCain's long history in the Senate has one main theme: Government can do no good in telecom policy. "McCain is a pure free-market ideologue," said Mark Cooper, director of research at the Consumer Federation of America. "Their [Bush and McCain] belief is that government should just get out of the way and let the private sector do it. Clearly, in the financial markets, the private sector has done a horrible job."

Other media experts have characterized McCain's Commerce Committee tenure as a lost opportunity to make progress on telecommunications policy. "The thing that stands out for his entire tenure is that he has never had a priority, and has never had, to my knowledge, any accomplishment of any kind at all," said
[Reed] Hundt. [Snip]

McCain was one of the most vocal opponents of Education Rate (E-Rate), a program designed to provide discounts to schools and libraries to connect to the Internet. [Snip]

Americans don't expect the next president to be Twitterer-in-chief, but he will need to lead an increasingly technologically savvy nation and ensure that the benefits of advanced telecommunications reach as many people as possible. "Government doesn't need to manage the technological developments," Hundt said at the June Federalist Society debate. "But it ought to establish a rule of law where entrepreneurs can raise money and enter these markets."

Closing the digital divide and developing an equitable broadband strategy will be a significant challenge. Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America said McCain won't be up to the task. "Nobody believes if McCain gets into office he's going to fix federal communications policy," he said. "He doesn't have any credibility when it comes to [initiating] a government act. Obviously, he's trading on the capital he built up when he was the straight-talk express. But that capital is dissipating very quickly."
Can a man who is proud to be a technological troglodyte actually create and implement a technological policy that will lead America into a successful 21st Century?

It's extremely doubtful. He considers technology to be the exclusive province of private enterprise, to be designed to meet the demands of a competitive market. Yet at the same time he invariably fights for mergers and corporate consolidations that limit or eliminate competition.

If he sees no need to make technology a priority in his work life where it would make him more productive, how can he set such technological policy priorities for the nation? He can't. It's that simple. Under a McCain Presidency, America will continue its rapid march into a technological backwater.

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