Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Note to Next President: Avoid Computers

(Lee Gomes at the WSJ) Should a president -- of the United States, or even of a company, for that matter -- use a computer? Or, are there jobs that are too important for the office holder to be spending the day deleting spam or closing pop-up windows in a browser?
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The two presidential candidates this year, in addition to all their other, more-significant differences, also present two contrasting perspectives about the extent to which personal-computer technology can be integrated into someone's everyday life.

Sen. Barack Obama lives the life of every modern road warrior, checking a BlackBerry as easily as he checks his wristwatch, and decompressing in his downtime with an iPod. That latter preference is one of the few he shares with the current president, who is known to take along an iPod, preloaded by his White House staff with classic rock, on his mountain-bike runs.

Sen. John McCain, by contrast, represents the last generation that will be able to claim imperviousness to the machines. Judging by the way his self-acknowledged computer illiteracy is mocked in YouTube videos, it's probably a safe bet that his campaign wishes he were more fluent in technology, especially considering the number of his contemporaries who have taken up the machines without a problem. But anyone who has ever been flustered by a gadget, or who has watched a teenager work a cellphone, won't be unsympathetic to Sen. McCain.

It's a fair question to ask: Can someone who never touches a computer truly be in touch with what is happening in the world? The computer industry has worked very hard over the past few decades to cause us to suspect as much. But what about the opposite question: Does anyone who spends all day in front of a PC, forging a river of data posing as information, have any time to think?

A group of technology reporters once received the CEO of a midsize, low-tech company eager to impress his listeners with his connectedness. He described his day as one long session checking emails and news alerts, save for the occasional interruption of a staff meeting or a sales call.

All this was related with pride, as though it was what modern executives were doing. His listeners, though, were struck by how he seemed to have no time left in the day to think, which was surely why he had yet to realize that he was spending his day consuming the information version of junk food.

If I were the chief of staff at the White House, I would have some sort of computer, not in the Oval Office itself, since it wouldn't match the furniture, but one office away. I'd push the president to spend, say, 20 minutes a day on the machine -- whether he would complain about the limit or about the mandated time.

The president wouldn't need to worry about his email inbox; a staff would be standing by ready to handle it. Memos, position papers, summaries of newspaper reports and all the rest, would be delivered via printouts, since words on printed paper appear to have more of an impact than words on a flickering screen.

The president could use his computer time any way he wished: a favorite blog, YouTube videos, a mind-clearing game of Spider Solitaire. So many of his constituents would be doing the same thing at the same time, it would be a good way to keep up with the common folk.

The severe time rationing is necessary because a computer, far from making you more productive, instead loads you down with things to do, and it's important for the machine to know who is boss. Most people don't have the luxury of off-loading their email-reading chores to a group of competent assistants. It's an office perk that presidents are still important enough to deserve.

Everyone has heard the puzzle about whether Bill Gates, upon walking to work, should bother to stop and pick up a quarter he saw on the sidewalk. Yes, the quarter is bright and shiny, but a careful assessment of the situation would reveal that, for someone of that earning potential, the time spent retrieving the coin could be spent much more profitably at the office. At least in theory.

For a president, a computer can be a similar distraction. Sure, he could spend five minutes reading an especially insightful blog post from one of his core constituencies. But it would be better for him to be spending the time having coffee with the person thinking the thoughts that the world will be blogging about a week or a month hence.

With the world at his beck and call, a president is one of the few people lucky enough to be able to learn more off-line than he would chained to a keyboard. The 20-minute limit would be good for the country. The rest of us are stuck reading emails -- and picking up quarters.

Felix Salmon comments:

I suspect even the author of this piece, Lee Gomes, doesn't really believe it. It simply can't be better for a president to have all his information filtered through assistants playing office politics, rather than getting it directly from trusted sources who also have the advantage of not being paid employees.

Gomes claims it's a better use of time for a president to have coffee with a blogger rather than to simply read that blogger's thoughts online. But one can get much more information much more quickly by reading than one can through having coffee, even if the coffee is more enjoyable - although given the social skills of most bloggers, even that is far from a sure thing.

In any case, the president is the elected representative of the people, and the internet is the best way yet discovered for a president to keep in touch with his constituency. Does McCain's computer illiteracy disqualify him from the presidency? No. But it is a severe handicap.

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