Technology and Presidential Election: How Much Should a Candidate Know?

I came across the following article by Garrett Graff this morning. I don’t like writing about politics because it’s become so divisive, vitriolic, and confrontational in recent years, but Graff made a point I think is worth addressing.

Don’t Know Their Yahoo From Their YouTube – washingtonpost.com:

So 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?

The thing that set Graff off was something Senator McCain said during a debate this past week about having a Vice President who can help him with issues like information technology. Graff suggests that candidates need to be tech savvy to be considered seriously, and gives plenty of fodder about what politicians have had to say about the Internet. Fortunately, he spared us the reminder that Al Gore invented the Internet.

I take a very different tack on these kinds of things than Graff does. I don’t expect a president, much less every candidate, to be hip enough to know the difference between whichever websites are in vogue, much less the differences between IMAP and POP or who fiddles with Ruby on Rails in his or her spare time.

The Internet is in constant flux, and who says youtube, Google, and eBay won’t eventually go the way of drkoop.com, pets.com, or excite? Many sites have proven to be fads over time, and most of them enjoy their fifteen minutes for only about that long. Remember the “new economy” and how the Internet would displace “brick and mortar”? Ahem. The Internet is here to stay, but not necessarily in the form it now is. It’s important to have ideas to drive sound policies forward, but not necessarily to be hip to the currently-popular websites.

Do we really need a president who knows more about that than energy policy, foreign policy, or who has leadership abilities? And if that’s really paramount, whom would Graff support, for example, between Senator Ted Stevens who doesn’t understand e-mail or networking and Bill Gates? Should we get the candidates to take a stand on HD-DVD versus Blu-Ray while we’re at it?

I disagree that we “blithely allow” ignorance about anything. I also disagree that it’s a problem, much less partly “simply generational.” Sure, the younger generations are more tech savvy and older generations are less comfortable with newer technology — that’s always been the case. That doesn’t mean someone who doesn’t have a myspace page isn’t fit to be president (though every candidate probably has one). After all, we’ve had leaders who’ve excelled with policies about which they had little or no experience or knowledge. Good leaders aren’t policy wonks or experts, they just surround themselves with wonks and experts. Good leaders are big picture people who don’t get bogged down in minutiae.

Graff’s not alone in having a myopic litmus test. I read something recently in New Scientist that suggested candidates should be quizzed on the scientific method and be dismissed if they’re not up on it, or on evolution or other theories. The Religious Right also has its own set of litmus tests. So do those on the Left. Every group does. That’s politics. Politics isn’t about realism, especially in the vitriolic and partisan climate we have today.

We live in a very diverse and specialized world. We cannot realistically expect a candidate to be an expert on all things, much less to have a firm grasp on nuances within every field. It’s more important to know that someone has proven success in some endeavor and is a leader who surrounds himself or herself with the kind of people who do have the nuanced expertise in all the various fields affecting national policy. Do we want a president who spends time fiddling with myspace settings or who has broader ideas that affect our quality of life, peace in the Middle East, and so on?

I’ll vote according to which candidate I think gets the big picture and doesn’t wallow in detail. As nice as it might be to have a botanist in the White House, I’m more concerned that a president can see the forest than name all the trees in it.

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