The Risks of a Digital Blindspot

One of the questions Americans need to ask over the next few days is whether a self-described computer “illiterate” can lead our nation effectively in the 21st century.  There are few greater contrasts between John McCain and Barack Obama than on the issue of how comfortable they are with the culture and technologies of the digital era. 

Young people in America ride to school in the same yellow buses and play in the same parks as their parents and grandparents did.  But the way they are learning and socializing is radically different.  They shape their identities via Facebook, MySpace, and cell phones.  America’s youth are growing up in a hybrid world: part analog and part digital.

Digital natives – young people with access to digital technologies and the skills to use them – are, for the first time, a major bloc of our nation’s voters, employees, entrepreneurs, and consumers.  They are relating to one another, information, and institutions in fundamentally different ways than past generations.  Some of the things they are up to online are great; others, not so much. 

Parents and teachers of digital natives are often not connected to the digital world that their children are living in.  Getting connected is the first, most important step that we can take to help children thrive in a digital era.  Our children will gladly be our guides to these new public spaces online.  Then good teaching and parenting can work its magic, keeping kids safe online and off, helping them distinguish credible information from falsehoods, helping them make the most of the opportunities the digital world offers.

The next president needs to be connected to this enormous culture, too.  The digital policy issues facing America are not unlike the issues kids face in the home.  Just as parents worry about the safety of their children in a digital world, our next president needs to understand the security implications of a fast-growing global network, like how a cyberattack – no longer mere fantasy, as the Defense Department makes plain – might cripple our nation’s infrastructure and how to protect against it. 

In times dominated by fears of terrorism, the next president will have to consider the extent of government surveillance.  He will need to help us grow our high-tech economic sector, as digital natives in countries like Brazil and India vie for the digital-era jobs our graduates also seek.  Issues like network neutrality and how U.S. companies operate in countries like China that censor the Internet will land on the next president’s desk.

Just as social life takes place for young people online, so too does political life.  This no doubt helped cybergenic Obama reach young voters in the primary.  But more important than how he reaches voters during an election is how the next president will govern.  To ignore online public discourse and the possibilities for engagement, by young people and old, would be to squander one of the great opportunities of our age.  That much of today’s conversation online is unconstructive only heightens the need for a leader who can help to create effective online spaces, not one who will pretend it doesn’t exist.

Much turns on whether Americans choose McCain, who is new to email, or BlackBerry-toting Obama.  This distinction is about more than age or hipness.  It is about an ability to understand crucial issues of how we surveil terrorists, protect civil liberties, and defend against cyberwarfare.  It is about jobs, growth, and the nation’s economic place in the world.  And, fundamentally, it drives at the issue of how our democracy will function for the next four years and beyond.

7 thoughts on “The Risks of a Digital Blindspot

  1. Pingback: Doctor Daisy » the power of blogging continues

  2. In today’s fast paced, technology driven world, it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue the appeal of a “cybergenic” political candidate. Youthful appearance, well trained eloquence, alluring promises of “change”, a shared generational familiarity of a digital world can be attractive, even to the most conservative.

    However the responsibilities attached to leading the “free world” require more than firing off emails to Scarlet Johansson, “googling” military capacity & political nuances before responding to threats from a rogue government, or diplomatic familiarity with the real world versus a virtual world,etc. I submit that tactical knowledge and experience far outweigh dexterity with a keyboard and a mouse.

    The past 4 weeks in financial markets around the world might offer an example of the need for experience, reason and the ability to perform under extreme conditions versus the less experienced operators of high speed algorithmic responses. I believe It would be difficult to argue as the world was on the precipice of a “global market meltdown” and the schizophrenic downward spiral was exacerbated by a programed response, only avoided or by the experienced intervention. Humans,
    not desk tops help dampen the tsunami of panic and introduced some semblance of calm, albeit for an unknown length of time.

    Lastly, perhaps it easier to indict by association rather than by service to one’s country, however during these extremely challenging times, I for one feel more confident with a pilot of proven character, experience and love for his country, (however old fashioned that may sound). And this does not even address the perils of governance without “checks and balance”.

  3. John,
    one doesn’t need to work on computers, to understand the world. Same way you don’t need to have your own kids, to understand that kids need being taken care of.
    However, the difference, I think, is that Obama has managed to build a perfect Internet campaign, which could have happened only in the USA currently.
    But I hope that whoever wins, there will be space for people like you, Vint Cerf, and others, who know what to do, in their offices.

    As for John McCain, he’s clearly a representative of the analog generation – good, reliable, but very old, and with limited features. Obama is an upgrade, digital one, with cool features. McCain is like Windows, and Obama is like Linux.

  4. Responding to James Rutledge: I find it rather amusing and ironic that Mr. Rutledge is availing himself of the very medium that he seeks to disparage before devolving into standard and tired cant in his final paragraph (not to mention the meaningless appeal to “checks and balances”).

    No one is arguing that Internet/digital savviness is sufficient for a political leader, but it should be seen as increasingly necessary. This leaves aside the very sophisticated and broad use of the evolving Internet by the Obama campaign to run a modern campaign in all its complexity. Nor is anyone denying the gold standard of actual person-to-person involvement in dealing with the issue Mr. Rutledge raises. However, familiarity with the global nature of the Internet and its relation to global financial events would seem to be in order. The Golden Ear crowd aside, pure analog simply does not cut it anymore.

  5. Two quick thoughts (one with little value)-

    “That much of today’s conversation online is unconstructive only heightens the need for a leader who can help to create effective online spaces, not one who will pretend it doesn’t exist.”

    What medium’s conversation is mostly constructive? I’m not sure what you’re contrasting against. And if the there is no contrast, does the conclusion still follow?

    “McCain is like Windows, and Obama is like Linux.”

    I believe you mean McCain is like the command line, Obama is like Vista. There is no politician, at least that I’m aware of, that remotely reflects Linux and the values that make Linux possible. Sorry I’m a bit of an open sourcer, but you are correct that Linux is cool.

  6. Pingback: Internet & Democracy Blog » Medvedev Talks to Novaya Gazeta on Internet Control, Democracy in Russia

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