One of the tellingest moments of the American political season, clearly showing the generational difference between John McCain and Barack Obama, was in response to an early question about what websites he uses.
McCain, who is 72, admitted that he was a “computer illiterate,” doesn’t e-mail, and gets his wife Cindy to help him navigate the web.
His aides didn’t help much when they later noted that McCain was “aware of the Internet,” and one aide went as far as to say that McCain was somehow responsible for the RIM Blackberry, implying he invented it — of course he didn’t, and the aide was actually suggesting that McCain helped speed the adoption of technologies that allow the Blackberry to exist, but it was a spectacular gaffe nonetheless.
Since then, McCain reportedly took steps to become more familiar with technology and the issues surrounding it, and gave some coherent answers on tech questions later in his campaign that showed a decent comprehension of how important those issues are.
However, the damage was done, especially when it appeared that McCain almost always came down on the corporate side on issues like net neutrality, prompting many technology companies like Google and Apple to endorse Obama.
Compared to Obama, who released a comprehensive technology policy in 2007, and who clearly understood and used the technology better than his opponent, technology was the one issue where McCain appeared old and out of touch.
I’m not sure if that had anything to do with Obama’s win in this election — technology comprehension probably ranked pretty far down the list of issues on voters’ minds in this election with the economy tanking and two wars on the go, but it didn’t help.
While everyone credits technology development to companies, governments do play a huge role as investors in the military, universities and research institutes, and as the regulators of airwaves and networks. For cellular telephone technology to take off, for example, governments had to approve the installation of towers and hubs, as well as standards for data transmission. For the Internet to flourish, government had to make the initial investment in military communications technology, then maintain the web as a public resource during the early days. Patenting technologies allows companies to profit, and invest more in research and development, while a liberal interpretation of those same patents also allows competitors to push the boundaries of innovation and keep technology priced low enough for consumers.
But while we know that Obama can use technology, he’s also a politician and has taken a variety of stands on different issues in the tech game that could be good or bad, depending on your views. So what kind of a president will Obama be?
We know that under Bush II, and possibly under Clinton, America started to lag behind the world in Internet speed and usage — an issue that has been blamed on the fact that the administration generally sides with telecommunications companies, and that there was little pressure to innovate and grow when companies were profiting comfortably without much competition. And while the U.S. is the world leader in tech innovation and continues to set the standard in many areas, other countries are slowly catching up and sometimes outpacing the U.S. One example would be hybrid vehicles, where Japan has taken the lead, or alternative energy, where European countries are well-ahead.
There is also the education side of the equation, and the U.S. currently lags behind most developed countries when it comes to teaching math and science, while its universities boast some of the highest tuitions in the world.
Just as Obama will be challenged fixing the economy, extricating the U.S. from two wars, and providing health care to all Americans, he will also have to work to restore America’s technical edge.
According to CNet author Stephanie Condon, Obama is a mixed bag on the technology front.
The president-elect likes the concept of open source, and is against the rigid confines of copyright laws and patents that appear to be stifling innovation, “while ensuring that intellectual property owners are fairly treated.” He has supported the concept that would allow people to make a single backup copy of a DVD, CD or game that is legally purchased.
He is also for public investment in the broadband network, entering a game once left entirely to the private sector — and botched badly if current Internet speed and usage statistics are compared to countries like Korea, Japan, the U.K., and so on.
There was also an interesting comparison on Obama and McCain at www.sciencedebate2008.com that allowed voters to compare candidates’ answers to a questionnaire but it should be noted that both candidates passed on the opportunity to have a science debate.
Website of the Week — The death of low tech is inevitable, but sometimes painful. Last week, Stern Pinball (www.sternpinball.com), the last manufacturer of pinball machines in the world, announced plans to layoff several workers and designers and there were rumours that Stern may actually close its doors. As a fan of pinball, and former addict of the Addam’s Family and Funhouse pinball games, this was a hard announcement to take.