Does not compute

Will our next president be a geek hero or a guy who doesn’t e-mail?
By MIKE MILIARD  |  October 30, 2008

081031_tech_main

If members of the voting public, curious about John McCain’s positions, absentmindedly punch “www.mccain.com” into their Firefox nav bar, they’re taken not to the McCain campaign’s star-spangled site, but to the official corporate portal of McCain Foods Limited, makers of Tasti Taters and Pizza Pockets.

It’s beyond his control, sure, that this was one URL the McCain campaign couldn’t snatch up. But it also serves as a metaphor of sorts for a 21st-century politician who’s admitted to being a computer “illiterate,” who has to “rely on my wife” for all his Web-browsing needs, and who “never felt the particular need to e-mail.”

Those quotes led to much bemused guffawing and righteous hair-tugging. Beseeched, one commenter beneath a blog posts at theatlantic.com: “does anyone have a problem with a man who can barely use a computer trying to articulate what is happening in world markets? How could he possibly grasp global economy in this day and age?”

Clearly that man was unaware of McCain’s technological bona fides. That Blackberry in your pocket? You can thank McCain, says his senior policy advisor, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. And, according to a recent New Yorker article, Sarah Palin first crossed the campaign’s radar screen thanks in part to one young Republican who’d learned about her after “randomly searching Wikipedia . . . for Republican women,” and set up a Web site, which was echoed and amplified by the blogosphere at large.

So there’s, uh, that. But what might a potential McCain administration mean for technology issues? Should we maybe expect more from a presidential ticket in this dizzying technological age than a V-P who routinely used a private, easily-hacked Yahoo! account to conduct state business in Alaska? To say nothing of a president who when asked “PC or Mac?” responded: “neither”?

Electoral engineering
Though he’s infamous for his aversion to computers, McCain is actually no Luddite. He’s served on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation for 21 years, and chaired it three separate times between 1997 and 2005, as the Internet utterly transformed the world. (He was on the committee when the Senate passed the momentous Telecommunications Act of 1996, for example.) So he’s been compelled, at least, to keep apprised of technological issues.

But you wouldn’t know that from the way the McCain campaign has seemed to distance itself from technology. Though the Republican candidate’s Web site does have the nowadays-requisite Flash videos and a blog that’s updated a few times a day, “the McCain campaign seems like it’s going out of its way to avoid using modern technology,” says Garrett M. Graff, author of The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House. “There is no documented proof that the McCain campaign has sent out a text message. I have never heard of it [a McCain text message], and I know of no one who has.” (This as the campaign is flooding swing-state land lines with robocalls.)

Obama, meanwhile, announced his V-P selection via text (albeit a message that woke up supporters at 3:30 in the morning — there’s your 3 am phone call, Hillary!), and has embraced an innovative multi-platform approach to getting his message out — even to the point of buying virtual billboards in video games, such as Burnout Paradise.

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