It's hard to tell exactly how much or how little John McCain knows about the Inter net. In January he spoke to Politico.com about his computing habits: "I am an illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get." In July he confessed to the New York Times that he has people surf the Web for him. "I don't e-mail," he added. "I've never felt the particular need to e-mail."
Since then, his staff has done some backpedaling on the subject, but it's pretty clear that McCain is not leet (élite, in hacker parlance), and he is definitely not 1337 (even more élite, in hacker parlance). On the grand scale of wired politicians, he's probably somewhere between recently indicted Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who famously described the Internet as a "series of tubes," and our current President, who once proudly explained to CNBC's Maria Bartiromo how he uses "the Google." (As for Obama, he's well known to be a BlackBerry addict.) What exactly does it mean that the next President of the U.S. might be a newbie?
McCain is an example of what, under the Clinton Administration, used to be called the digital divide. Back then it was the cause of much gnashing of political teeth; in his 2000 State of the Union address, Clinton announced a "national crusade" to take the Internet to those who didn't have it. That year 41.5% of Americans were online, according to U.S. Census numbers. This past May a survey by the research firm Parks Associates found that 82% are. The off-line American has gone from a disenfranchised minority to an endangered species.
But the great cybercrusade hasn't reached McCain. We could just shrug and assume that McCain, at 71, is typical of his age group, but that's actually not the case. While it's true, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, that only 35% of Americans over the age of 65 are online, if you look at the subset for McCain's race, gender and education, the number is more like 75%. McCain is way behind.
Does this mean he shouldn't be President? On a practical level, it's a nonissue. If President McCain needs to watch the new Rihanna video on YouTube, he can wave his little finger and eight Secret Service guys will hook him up.
What's more worrying is the idea that McCain is disconnected from the social, cultural and economic realities of the Internet. We are way past the point where we can treat the Internet as if it were some kind of nerd Narnia only tangentially connected to the real world. In the next few years, the President is going to have to make decisions about Internet surveillance, Net neutrality, cyber warfare (which, after years as an urban myth, has become quite real) and online privacy, just to name a few issues.
And more than that, the structure of a networked world is hard to understand if you haven't spent some time as a node in that network. The center lessness, the irrelevance of geography, the propagation of information, the Fried man ian economic flatness, the semi-anonymous contacts with millions of other people--if you can't grasp that structure, how can you lead the people who live and work in it?
If there's a bright side to McCain's Internet illiteracy, it's that at this point most of the rest of us are trying to figure out how to send less e-mail, not more. The Internet, conceived as a research and productivity tool, has become a weapon of mass distraction. Last year a joint study by Microsoft and the University of Illinois found that it takes, on average, 16 min. 33 sec. for a worker interrupted by an e-mail to get back to what he or she was doing. Companies like Intel and Deloitte & Touche now have e-mail-free days to boost productivity. In June, Micro soft, Google and IBM, among others, formed the Information Overload Research Group to study the problem.
Perhaps the Clinton crusade has worked too well. Now we're trying to jump back across the digital divide. Who knows? Maybe McCain will be our most productive President ever. He's so behind the times, he's way ahead of them.