Jul 25, 2008

World - The truly powerful find no space for cyberspace

John McCain, Carl Icahn: Perhaps they don’t need to do cyberspace.

Hedge-fund billionaire Carl Icahn, who has this week been given three seats on the board of internet company Yahoo, does not, it has been revealed, have a computer. Email, Icahn suggests, is a distraction. Republican presidential candidate John McCain doesn’t email or know how to use the net. He told the New York Times recently: “I am learning to get online myself.” Instead, the senator currently has the cyberspace equivalent of food tasters, namely aides who direct him to happening sites such as the Drudge Report and his daughter Meghan’s blog.

Democrats argue this shows that Mr. McCain, who turns 72 next month, is out of touch with the modern world. “My five-year-old niece can use the internet,” said one gloating Barack Obama strategist. Mr. Obama, by contrast, is regularly photographed in-flight hunched over his BlackBerry.

But is Mr. McCain’s admission really damaging? Like the Queen not carrying money, only really powerful people don’t do cyberspace. They sit at computer-free desks thinking outside the inbox, while their crack team of microserfs battle with spam or Google their way through virtual forests of information.

After Tony Blair left office, he had to adjust to a baffling new world of mobile phones (he didn’t have one as PM), texting (“Who are you?” was the reply to his first message) and email. The Bill Clinton Archive in Little Rock, Arkansas, has nearly four million emails from the former President’s staff and only two from the President himself. Admittedly, one of the latter was to astronaut John Glenn, who was aboard the space shuttle at the time, but even then Clinton’s staffers had to help him.

True, some titans of business reply very quickly to emails, as their inboxes are uncluttered by spam. Three hundred emails a day is the curse of the middle manager. But, as Stanford professor Donald Knuth, one of the world’s leading computer scientists, writes, “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

Mr. Knuth hasn’t checked his emails since 1990. Maybe Mr. McCain shouldn’t bother to familiarise himself with the web and, if elected, perhaps Mr. Obama should check his BlackBerry at the Oval Office door.