Ever since the top Internet staffers of the leading presidential campaigns gathered on stage at Personal Democracy Forum in New York at the end of June, and John Edwards campaign blogger Tracy Russo spontaneously confronted John McCain deputy Internet director Mark Soohoo over his boss's admission that he was computerwise "an illiterate" who relies on his wife when it came to the Internet, the question has entered the national debate over the 2008 election. Does the next President need to know how to use a computer and the Internet, as part of his qualifications for the office?
"You don't necessarily have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country," said Soohoo. "You do," interrupted Russo. "It's the frame of reference that comes from being engaged and using the technology and tools that are moving our entire world forward. It's powering a global economy and bringing about massive change." "John McCain is aware that the Internet exists," Soohoo responded. "This is a man who has a very long history of understanding on a range of issues." The audience was not impressed.
Since then, McCain has given several interviews touching on his awareness and use of the Internet, and all of them suggest that he wants to convey a better impression of himself. “I am forcing myself…I am using the computer more and more every day," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I am learning to get online myself,” he told the New York Times. “I don’t expect to set up my own blog, but I am becoming computer literate to the point where I can get the information that I need.”
Should we really be making a big deal of this? We think so.
McCain's technological illiteracy isn't, in and of itself, surprising. Only 35 percent of Americans over the age of 65 go online, according the most recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Older Americans are the only demographic group to lag so badly in their Internet use (though even this number is an increase from the 22 percent who said they went online in 2004).
And no one is suggesting that McCain, or any president, needs to know how to set up his own blog, let alone how to partition his hard drive to run Windows and MacOS. But the news that, until very recently, McCain didn't even know how to search for information online using a site like Google or how to manage his own email certainly indicated something fundamental was missing.
While his supporters have argued that McCain doesn’t have to know how to use the internet to understand how it works or its impact, Americans have a right to expect their presidents to have a healthy sense of curiosity about the world around them along with habits that make them lifelong learners, if not lifelong listeners. In fact, as Craig Newmark of Craigslist just pointed out in a recent blog post extolling need to listen in order to succeed as a chief executive, the Internet is a "permanent Town Hall and everyone is invited."
Even former President Jimmy Carter has taught himself the how to use a Mac and to complain, like the rest of us about being inundated with too much e-mail. But somehow he is still enthralled by the world of detailed information that the Internet has opened up for him as he continues his lifelong missions.
For McCain to admit that he was Internet-illiterate is doubly baffling because not only is he a member of United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, he chaired the committee from 2003-2005, a period of massive growth in broadband penetration worldwide and in the United States. Also it's not as if McCain lacks a meaningful record when it comes to the Internet. In 1999, he released a report on the "Ten Most Wanted" government documents online, to goad federal agencies to do more with what was then a very new way to share information with the public. And he regularly calls for "increasing transparency" in government, citing hidden spending through anonymous earmarks, though without more details it's unclear if he understands just how much more the Internet could transform how government works.
Given his recent statements about learning to go online, here’s to hoping that McCain is a fast study. Knowing the difference between a server and a waiter is important for any political leader in our day and age, but knowing how one can help solve problems for the other is even more vital.
Andrew Rasiej and Micah L. Sifry are, respectively, the founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, an online magazine and annual conference on how technology is changing politics.