As an American ex-pat writing for an IT-focused publication in Asia Pacific, I certainly did not think that I would have any reason to discuss the current US Presidential election. But then I read an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Note to the Next President: Avoid Computers”. Over the past few months, much has been made of John McCain’s self-proclaimed “computer illiterate” status. Checking Google (or as the current President of the US calls it “The Google”) I found tens of thousands of blog references that compared the Blackberry-enabled and iPod-listening Barack Obama with the digitally-challenged and out-of-touch John McCain. The still unresolved question being asked: “Should the President of the United States use a computer?”
The Wall Street Journal seems to think that the best answer is to “avoid computers”. Leaving aside the particularly insightful comment that a computer should remain outside the Oval Office because “it wouldn’t match the furniture”, the author’s recommendation is the President should be limited to 20 minutes a day of reading blogs, playing Solitaire or watching YouTube in order to keep up with the common people. “The severe time rationing is necessary because a computer, far from making you more productive, instead loads you down with things to do.”
I’d certainly agree that the President should not spend his day answering email or getting bogged down in cute pet videos, but anyone who thinks technological awareness is not important to the role of the President of the United States has lost the plot. Computer literacy isn’t about “being in touch” with the “common folk”, it is about understanding the impact of technology on the intensely interwoven social, political and economic fabric of today’s world. Without that understanding, decisions can be made and policies promulgated that do not respond to the challenges of living and thriving in the “flat world” of the 21st century.
A flood of technologies, exacerbated by evolving social and business dynamics, has effectively leveled our globe in the past decade. This has “accidentally made Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda (Maryland) next door neighbours,” according to Thomas Freidman, author of The Flat World: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.
These converged forces — or flatteners — have “created a flat world: a global web-enabled platform for multiple forms of sharing knowledge and work, irrespective of time, distance, geography and, increasingly, language,” Friedman states.
Increased connectivity, made possible by IT and the internet, is removing many of the barriers that constrained world trade, communications, employment and social discourse. However, the past decade’s multibillion-dollar investment in fiber-optic highways and satellites, which has made the world flatter and smaller, has had considerably less impact on how governments conduct themselves. Technology still cannot act on its own volition. It is part of a large social ecosystem and, therefore, subject to the vagaries of human inclination and behaviour. Use and adoption are conditioned by social mores and economic reality. These bumps will take longer and be harder to flatten than a fibre-optic cable.
In the 21st century, countries are no longer isolated archipelagos. They operate in a technologically-enabled ecosystem of networked ideas, information and inter-connectedness. Governments and those that govern must look for opportunities to focus on innovation, collaboration, and connectivity. They can no longer be guided solely by the motto of doing things that are right for their citizens, for their political, social, and economic environments. The next President of the US must be both capable and willing to use the power of that technologically-enabled infrastructure to try to do the right things for the “flat world”.
Does that mean the President must have a computer in the Oval Office? I can only speak for myself… the ability to use a computer is not on my top-ten list of required skills for the next President of the US. As a citizen of the US, I can vote in the US election in November and my vote will go to the man that I believe can provide the leadership that is needed in the digitally connected world of today and tomorrow. And I, along with the rest of the citizens of this interconnected world, can only hope that the winner recognises that “technology matters”.
Mary Ann Maxwell is Gartner group VP, executive programmes.
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