Obama on technology

One of the tellingest moments of the American political season, clearly showing the generational difference between John McCain and Barack Obama, was in response to an early question about what websites he uses.

McCain, who is 72, admitted that he was a “computer illiterate,” doesn’t e-mail, and gets his wife Cindy to help him navigate the web.

His aides didn’t help much when they later noted that McCain was “aware of the Internet,” and one aide went as far as to say that McCain was somehow responsible for the RIM Blackberry, implying he invented it — of course he didn’t, and the aide was actually suggesting that McCain helped speed the adoption of technologies that allow the Blackberry to exist, but it was a spectacular gaffe nonetheless.

Since then, McCain reportedly took steps to become more familiar with technology and the issues surrounding it, and gave some coherent answers on tech questions later in his campaign that showed a decent comprehension of how important those issues are.

However, the damage was done, especially when it appeared that McCain almost always came down on the corporate side on issues like net neutrality, prompting many technology companies like Google and Apple to endorse Obama.

Compared to Obama, who released a comprehensive technology policy in 2007, and who clearly understood and used the technology better than his opponent, technology was the one issue where McCain appeared old and out of touch.

I’m not sure if that had anything to do with Obama’s win in this election — technology comprehension probably ranked pretty far down the list of issues on voters’ minds in this election with the economy tanking and two wars on the go, but it didn’t help.

While everyone credits technology development to companies, governments do play a huge role as investors in the military, universities and research institutes, and as the regulators of airwaves and networks. For cellular telephone technology to take off, for example, governments had to approve the installation of towers and hubs, as well as standards for data transmission. For the Internet to flourish, government had to make the initial investment in military communications technology, then maintain the web as a public resource during the early days. Patenting technologies allows companies to profit, and invest more in research and development, while a liberal interpretation of those same patents also allows competitors to push the boundaries of innovation and keep technology priced low enough for consumers.

But while we know that Obama can use technology, he’s also a politician and has taken a variety of stands on different issues in the tech game that could be good or bad, depending on your views. So what kind of a president will Obama be?

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