Twenty years ago this spring, the small software company I was working for hired in a new vice president of advertising to be, among other things, my boss. The guy, who’d come from running his own agency, was a CEO crony. He had all kinds of old-hippie cred (he’d belonged to one of the most famous communes in the Haight during the Summer of Love, and ran concerts at the Fillmore); but it’s fair to say that he was a bad fit for a young startup that was even then well on its way to becoming the computer game industry’s leading behemoth. Apart from the fact that he had no tech experience and was one of the most overtly sexist men I ever worked for (and that includes the waitressing job where the creepy rum-soaked old manager used to back me into the corner of the walk-in fridge to cop feels), the most remarkable thing about him was this: He absolutely refused to use e-mail.
This quaint disability — a form of learned helplessness, really — meant that every morning, his “girl” (that’s what he called the admin he shared with two other execs) had to print out the 200+ e-mails he’d gotten the previous day and leave them on a tidy stack on his desk. He’d hand-write his responses on each sheet and return them to her to type in the responses and send them out. (As if she had nothing better to do than spend two hours every day dealing with his mail flow.) Which meant that if you sent him an e-mail first thing Monday morning, you’d get a response sometime after lunch on Tuesday.
Not surprisingly, those of us who worked for him soon learned to get by without his input. So did most of the rest of the company. Even back in 1988, this aversion to computer use was considered deeply dysfunctional behavior. After all, we were in the computer game business — geeks with bad attitude seeking to push emerging technologies to their limits. E-mail was as essential as the company’s nervous system — axon and synapse, brain and backbone, the neural net through which information was gathered, circulated, interpreted, and put to practical use. It was the venue through which most of the company’s thinking, planning, consensus-building, gossip, comedy, drama, and cultural bonding took place. And since he’d willfully chosen to tune out the great collective hum of our electronic hive starting with his very first day, nobody was surprised in the least when he cleaned out his office after just four months.
It seems impossible now that any executive could have been that obtuse. But as a matter of historical curiosity, my ex-boss got that way because he’d internalized one of the most important status cues of a certain generation: Real Men Don’t Type. (If you’ve seen “Mad Men,” you’ve tasted this culture.) Typing — or using any other equipment that required manual dexterity or technical know-how — was, absolutely, the lowest of low-status women’s work. The only men who learned to type were the ones too low in rank to have staff to handle their correspondence for them; it was career suicide for a high-ranking gentleman to admit he possessed any of those skills for himself. The personal computer had already been around for over a decade even then; but to an executive schooled in the old forms, the PC on his desk was functionally exactly the same as an IBM Selectric typewriter. And asking this man to manage a typewriter was a degrading insult — a fundamental affront to his very VPness.
Computer-illiterate dinosaurs like this one died early in the tech industry: in fact, after he left, I never saw another one again. But they continued to find refuge far longer in sectors like military contracting, heavy industry — and, apparently, the Senate, as we saw this week when Sen. John McCain marveled to reporters about all the information his staff could summon about possible vice presidential candidates using “a Google.”
The world giggled — after all, we’ve seen plenty of this recently, between Bush’s references to “The Google” and Ted Stevens’ tortured imagery of information getting hung up in big Internet tubes.
But people: This is 2008, not 1988. And this kind of sheer ineptitude is not funny any more.
America has been running its business on computers for over half a century now. Two entire generations have come of age relying on PCs as desktop extensions of their own brains. The Web is nearly 15 years old. Google’s been around for a decade.
At this late date, we live in a world where nothing gets bought or sold without being inventoried, tracked, priced, brokered, or paid for by computer. There’s not a business sector, from banking to transportation to utility management to health care to the food supply, that doesn’t rely on deeply interlinked information systems. America’s technological dominance and vast prosperity over the past half-century has been built on its IT innovations; the Internet is still generating far more wealth for more people than any other piece of the economy.
Our high-tech military lives and dies on its computers. So, increasingly, does our media, our art, our politics, and even our love lives. Information technology is so central to every aspect of our lives that it’s posing some of the knottiest ethical and legal challenges of our time. Beyond that, our utter dependence on a fast flow of bits is, without a doubt, our greatest Achilles’ heel: we’re up against a terrorist enemy that’s proven adept at using the networks to maintain global organizations in spite of our best efforts. And while plowing planes into buildings may be more visually dramatic, if a terrorist group really wanted to bring America to its knees, one well-planned denial-of-service attack could do the job better than half a dozen nukes.
And yet, despite this, there’s not a week that goes by without some politician or media talking head revealing a goofy ignorance of how this technology works — or perpetuating some bizarre stereotype of expert computer users as young, unwashed, antisocial kids who alternate between week-long Red Bull-fueled extreme Halo sessions, blogging, making YouTube mashups, and working out new ways to destroy the world. The media and political establishment deeply internalized this crazy-geek stereotype in 1980, and they haven’t bothered to update it the least bit since. If it’s new and involves technology, it’s either a toy for scary kids or a tool for low-level staffers — and either way, serious people are not obliged to take it seriously.
So here we are, three decades later, with information technology assuming a central role in every aspect of America’s economic, military, and cultural life — and the question’s still begging an answer: Is it too damned much to demand leaders who are capable of thinking about computers as something other than niche-market high-tech toys for poorly socialized geek children — or glorified typewriters suitable only for the secretaries whose names they can’t quite be bothered to remember? At what point do we begin to insist that our media and political elite take high technology — and the industry that makes it, and the people who use it well — with the seriousness it deserves?
This isn’t cute any more. Using a computer is as basic to modern American life as driving a car. No self-respecting high school in 2008 would graduate a kid who couldn’t sit down at a computer, do 15 minutes of Google research, and pull together a five-paragraph essay explaining their findings. And that’s because no entry-level employer is going to hire said kid if he or she doesn’t have basic computer literacy skills.
So we have to wonder: why are we still electing people to the country’s most powerful offices who wouldn’t even make the first cut for a job at the local bank?
A nation that builds its wealth on the shoulders of knowledge workers deserves leaders who are also knowledge workers. We need curious leaders who don’t hesitate to use the tools at hand to locate a range of answers to the questions that concern them, who don’t rely entirely on staffers to research and digest data for them, who aren’t afraid of the cacophony of ideas that come up with a Google search because they’re confident of their ability to zero in on the data that matters. We need leaders who aren’t afraid to chip their manicures on a keyboard, and aren’t emasculated by the thought of typing their own correspondence. In the 21st century, real men type, because they know that any leader who allows anyone else to mediate their relationship with the noosphere — the vast global network of knowledge — is at an unacceptable and dangerous disadvantage.
We are well past the day when anybody should be allowed to wear their technical incompetence as a status badge, or where this kind of functional helplessness should be considered endearing or noble among our leaders. We should be asking our candidates: Do you use a Blackberry? What kind of laptop do you have? What’s in your RSS feed? Your iTunes library? Your bookmarks file?
And if they’re left mumbling and shooting desperate looks at some nearby staffer, then we shouldn’t be the least bit shy about calling them out on their incompetence for the offices they seek. Technologically illiterate leaders are, quite simply, a threat to our economic, military, and democratic health. Thirty years after the first PC hit American desks, it’s not unreasonable to argue that people who can’t manage a computer shouldn’t be allowed to manage the country.
Update: To my surprise, a Google search of the phrase “real men don’t type” revealed that the phrase has been used before — to describe the status-based refusal to adopt or use computer technology that prevailed at the Justice Department in the 1990s. In the end, this technophobia (evidently particularly endemic among “special agents,” who considered anything involving typing to be something less than Real Police Work) created a huge cultural blind spot that contributed largely to the FBI’s failure to connect the dots on the clues they had leading up to the 9/11 attack.
Let me say that again: the “Real men don’t type” attitude prevented the FBI from protecting us from 9/11. There couldn’t be any more pointed support for my argument that high-ranking government servants who refuse to master technology are a real and present threat to national security.