Why Obama and McCain Don't Get Tech

If you have any involvement in high technology, the one cringe-worthy moment in this season's presidential debates was this:

"If we create a new energy economy, we can create 5 million new jobs, easily, here in the United States. It can be an engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades.

"And we can do it, but we're going to have to make an investment. The same way the computer was originally invented by a bunch of government scientists who were trying to figure out, for defense purposes, how to communicate, we've got to understand that this is a national security issue, as well."

That was from Sen. Barack Obama at last week's presidential debate, describing the role that government can play in driving American business via a more planned economy. But even if one agrees with the first paragraph – and I'm not sure I do, as those new jobs will likely come at the cost of at least as many traditional energy industry jobs, whereas the information processing industry was basically brand new – there's all sorts of things wrong with that second paragraph.

If Sen. John McCain had made that statement, I probably wouldn't have been surprised. Even though we're now past the original canard that the senator didn't even know how to use e-mail – and I hope the people involved in that attack are suitably ashamed for have insulted a disabled war veteran – one still assumes that a 72-year-old man is probably not up on his electronics industry trivia … though that doesn't let him off the hook, as I'll soon explain.

However, Obama is a child of the digital age. He was born after the invention not only of the transistor, but the computer chip. He was eight years old when the microprocessor was invented, and was still in high school when Apple introduced the Apple II personal computer. He, at least, is supposed to know this stuff already.

Now, it's pretty obvious what was wrong in that second graph: What he meant to say was not "computer" but "the Internet" – and I'm sure his handlers would dismiss that as a slip of the tongue. But as Portfolio.com has already noted, "It's not exactly a major gaffe, but it's a mistake that no one who was decently familiar with the technology industry would be likely to make."

That's right. What it sounds like is a guy who memorized this statement, then screwed it up when he finally had to deliver it. And that's pretty dispiriting, because it means that neither candidate -- no matter how sophisticated his online campaign apparatus, no matter how many tech advisers he has on his staff, and no matter how often he references eBay or Google – really has a clue about America's largest manufacturing sector, its greatest source of new job creation, or the dynamo of our economic growth.

How is either man supposed to lead us into the second decade of the 21st century, when he doesn't understand the single most defining cultural and economic force of the last 30 years?

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