Techies double-click with net-savvy Obama

Fri, Nov 7, 2008, 00:00

NET RESULTS:A president comfortable with technology is less likely to take a knee-jerk approach to privacy, spectrum use, net taxes and copyright

WITH THE election of Barack Obama this week, the United States has the first president who can truly be said to be of the first wave of the tech and internet generations, familiar with the technologies that shape day-to-day life for many people.

Already, his campaign had revolutionised how a candidate makes a presidential bid by extensively using the internet. Obama used the net to announce his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nominee and he used it for creating and steadily building a massive national and international community of supporters that could be leveraged into an utterly formidable election machine.

His website released regular video addresses, e-mailed supporters constantly, ran a blog and, key to it all, raised funds from millions upon millions of small donors. People who would likely never have responded to mail drops, but, who are by now well used to buying online by credit card, found donating via the web to be a snap.

The bar was set very low on donations. The lowest amount one could tick was $60, but millions of "just folks" donating $60 - students, people on lower incomes, pensioners, people who can give a little now and a little later on too - add up to a lot more campaign cash than a few ultra-expensive fundraising dinners for the glitterati.

Ultimately Obama set new records for fundraising primarily by using the net. People were still donating right up to election day.

The Obama campaign also mastered the art of the friendly e-mail. The first campaign e-mail on the morning of Tuesday's election, the one voters would have woken up to in their inbox, was not from Barack but from his wife, Michelle.

Actually, it was from info@barackobama.com and few will believe it was Michelle typing out a quick note on her lonesome, but it was a nice touch, a very friendly nudge that let the voter imagine Barack was at last having a little lie-in while Michelle logged on and sent a last upbeat plea to vote, and encourage others to vote.

Does this PC and net-savviness matter? I think so. On a purely cosmetic level, a high level of comfort and command of social technologies definitely spoke to the student and twentysomethings who were a cornerstone of Obama's early support.

John McCain made the blunder of admitting he didn't really use computers, didn't like Blackberries, hated texting. The Obama campaign immediately made a campaign advertisement out of that admission. In the aftermath, McCain's comments during an interview in San Francisco last summer, which would have been closely parsed by a Silicon Valley electorate, made it clear that, while he read websites and used e-mail, it was all a bit awkward for him.

While he was familiar with technology industry issues, that "doesn't mean that I have to e-mail people", McCain said to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter. "Now, I read e-mails," he said, noting his staff is "constantly showing them to me as the news breaks during the day".

And he added: "I use a computer almost every day. I go on different web sites . . . ours and the various media." That sounded familiar to a lot of voters. That sounded like your grandfather. That sounded like another old out of touch guy in the Oval Office. It didn't sound like someone who knew a lot about the kinds of things that mattered to you, right here, right now.

To be fair to McCain, he was chairman of the Commerce Committee for a few years and would have been involved with the controversial vote to reject internet taxes, for example.

And Obama is a bit of an unknown on many tech-related issues.

But many serious technology-related decisions lie ahead for a new US president, and a president comfortable with today's technologies is, in my book, a lot less likely to take a knee-jerk approach to privacy, spectrum use, copyright, net taxes, encryption, social networking environments, and data leaks.

On the other hand, Obama's vice-presidential pick - Joe Biden - has a patchier record. He came in near the bottom of technology news site C/Net's "technology voter's guide", for example, primarily for his anti-privacy stance years back that tried to outlaw the use of strong encryption for personal correspondence. That, in turn, led to Phil Zimmermann writing his famous PGP - Pretty Good Privacy - encrypted e-mail program. Biden has also been a bit of a peer-to-peer hawk, one of those guys worried that teens sharing their song collection online is a greater threat to democracy than, say, terrorists. So we'll have to hope that the president-elect can keep his older running mate's nose out of executive approaches to technology legislation and policy.

Still, I'd rather have a president who doesn't consider a Blackberry to be a threat to civilisation, can use e-mail to mobilise and inspire, who surfs the web, and whose kids are of an age to be playing videogames and downloading music onto their iPods. That speaks more to someone in touch with a modern United States and a modern world.

klillington@irish-times.ie

Blog: www.techno-culture.com