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.