American Culture

The candidates' digital divide: reflections and ramifications

As I was walking down the 16th Street Mall this afternoon, I passed a woman wearing a button that said “Ask Me How Many Houses I Own.” It’s amazing how quickly a creative entrepreneur can turn something into a marketable opportunity, even a political gaffe.

McCain’s deeply regrettable admission has been the subject of many a comment, criticism and joke here around the DNC this week, to no one’s surprise. But what has surprised me was another McCain gaffe that’s gotten far less press, yet which also provides major evidence for how far removed he is from the daily world of the people he seeks to govern. I’m speaking of his admission a few weeks ago that he does not use the Internet and had never sent an e-mail.

I’ve heard apologists argue that it’s a generational thing; he’s 72. My mom is 69, and she’s never sent an e-mail either. But she’s not running for president. Others have countered that he’s got staffers for that, to handle his research and correspondence, so he can spend his time on more important elements of the political process.

I remain incredulous. Not even so much that McCain is not online, but that he admitted it. That he doesn’t realize the significance of admitting it. Just like the house thing.

I think it’s critically significant in two key ways: one, it indicates a complete lack of curiosity and engagement with contemporary culture; and two, it speaks volumes about his (in)ability to connect with millions of younger voters — basically anyone under 40, and a big share of folks past that mark who have made a point to overcome their higher learning curve and engage the world in its emerging lingua franca.

While Obama’s plan to reveal his VP pick in a text message to supporters was foiled by party insiders who leaked it first, it was still a clever tack. Some critics called it a PR gimmick, and it had shades of that. But more importantly, it demonstrated the Obama campaign’s awareness of how a major share of a key demographic communicates. It showed, without having to explain anything, that Obama is up to speed, he is culturally relevant, and he seeks to engage his supporters on their own terms.

Barack Obama turned 47 earlier this month. He’s just beyond the age –45–which some polls have identified as the dividing point between a younger voter majority likely to support him, and an older set that leans toward McCain, according to a journalist guest (whose name is momentarily eluding my own 46-year-old mind) on PBS’s Washington Week, which I was in the audience for during a Denver taping Aug. 22.

Obama is on that cusp – but he’s clearly embraced the absolute centrality of a world leader’s need to be conversant in digital culture, while demonstrating that he knows how to reach those who are his chronological juniors. His number of Facebook friends is approaching one and a half million. Time will tell if he can manage to find the means to do the same with his elders, whom polls indicate remain lukewarm. My mother, however, is an exception. She is a white, non-computer-owning senior citizen who’s all about Obama for November, but like John McCain, has no idea what an anomaly she is.

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