Garrett M. Graff, an editor at large at Washingtonian magazine–and also the first blogger admitted to a White House briefing–has an excellent op-ed in today’s Washington Post asking the same question many of us on this blog have raised before: Why do we let politicians get away with joking about their tech ignorance? Graff provides many examples of how the President, presidential candidates, and leading members of Congress, often joke about their ignorance of the information technology industry and IT policy issues in general. And then he rightly asks: “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?”
It used to be easy to laugh about some of this, but as Graff argues, the time for laughing about tech ignorance is over:
In fact, technology shouldn’t be such a laughing matter. As a nation, we wouldn’t tolerate such ignorance about any other area of policymaking. Would we be amused if it came out that Joe Biden, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wasn’t clear about the difference between Shiites and Sunnis or couldn’t find Sudan on a map? How about if Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Senate banking committee, wasn’t entirely sure what the term “subprime mortgage” meant? You can be sure that if Susan Collins, the ranking Republican on the Senate homeland security committee, fumbled over what a “dirty bomb” is, pundits and pols on both sides of the aisle would have her head. So why is it so funny that the octogenarian Stevens, the top Republican senator on the committee that regulates the Web, doesn’t know the difference between the Internet and an e-mail? (Some of this stuff is technical, but really now.)
Some presidential candidates — you know, the ones always talking about ensuring that the United States can compete in a fast-moving, tech-savvy world — seem to be getting a pass on technological literacy. Answering a campaign-trail question earlier this year, Mitt Romney, the former entrepreneur whose high-tech background should make him the best-informed candidate, didn’t seem to know the difference between the video-sharing Web site YouTube (then the fourth most popular site in the world, according to Alexa.com) and MySpace, the social networking site (then ranked sixth). What if John Edwards had shown that he didn’t know the difference between Indonesia, the fourth most populous country, and Pakistan, the sixth most populous? Or the difference between Chevron, No. 4 on the Fortune 500 list, and No. 6 General Electric? It would have been a huge gaffe, a multi-day story in which pundit after pundit decreed him unfit to lead the nation. Romney’s similar faux pas didn’t even muss his electoral hair.
Of course, as Graff also notes, the fact that most members of Congress were born before the microchip was invented probably has a lot to do with this:
Part of the problem is simply generational. According to the Senate historian, the Senate is the oldest it has ever been, with an average age of 62 during the 110th Congress. Most of the leaders of Senate committees had already graduated from college by the time TVs became widespread in American homes in the 1950s. As the United States advances into the information age, it can’t afford to have its leaders’ base of knowledge be rooted in the industrial era, lest their intellectual capacities come to resemble such relics as the decaying steel mills of Pittsburgh.
Indeed, I think about all this every time I attend a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on tech policy and listen to lawmakers regale each other with stories about when they bought their first transistor radio or black-and-white television. Then, without missing a beat, they make jokes about not ever using the Internet or computers but that they have staffers or young family members who do and keep them informed. And yet, despite this stunning unfamiliarity with all things high-tech, they then move right on to pass reams of regulations governing the Internet and digital economy.
Again, it’s not funny anymore and we should stop allowing them to pretend it is.