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Technology Issues Largely Missing From Campaigns' Radar Screens

October 30, 2000|GARY CHAPMAN | Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at Recent Digital Nation columns are available at

Why haven't technology and the issues of the "new economy" made more of an impact on this year's election campaigns? That's the question that Times columnist Ronald Brownstein asked last week, and others have wondered about it too.

Many commentators have noted that Al Gore has long been known for his affinity with technology-related public policy; he essentially ran as a high-tech candidate in 1992 and 1996.

However, this year "Gore himself almost never talks about the new economy anymore," said Brownstein, "and instead looks mostly downscale for support."

George W. Bush has assembled a heavyweight team of technology advisors and supporters, including Michael Dell, venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme, former Netscape chief James Barksdale, and Intel's Chairman Andy Grove, among others. Gore has his list too, the "Gore-Techs" like Steve Jobs, venture capitalist John Doerr, and Netscape co-founder Marc Andreeson.

But neither of these groups has had any impact on the campaigns. The candidates' standings in the polls would almost certainly be exactly the same as they are today if these new-economy leaders had stayed clear and remained silent about their political preferences.

Why is this? After all, in 1992 the endorsement of 150 Silicon Valley executives arguably put Bill Clinton and Gore over the top, signaling their acceptability to the business leaders of that time. Now the moguls of the new economy can hardly get a headline.

There are several reasons for this change in the political environment.

First, most Americans are flat bored by all the jabber about high tech. The tornado of talk about the new economy is an obsession with an extremely thin layer of affluent and technically proficient people, and with opinion-makers and pundits. But if you get away from the dozen or so high-tech centers in the U.S., this obsession rapidly fades.

Second, most leaders of the new economy, and the journalists who cover it, are not routinely exposed to the bland and prosaic conversations of average Americans who see one another at church, or at occupational conventions and social gatherings, and where the topics are more likely to be sports and recipes than "synergy" and "B-to-B" (business-to-business) e-commerce. In fact, the ever-changing jargon of high-tech business is pure gobbledygook to most Americans, a fact that new economy enthusiasts have a hard time grasping.

Next, the two candidates' positions on technology-related issues are close enough that you have to look hard for differences, precisely because both men are so beholden to the same narrow constituency. Neither candidate will risk losing access to the financial resources of new economy leaders. And those high-tech leaders have developed a uniform, self-serving and colorless agenda, built entirely on their belief that what's good for high tech is good for the country, and Bush and Gore can't step outside the lines by recommending something different or even interesting.

When all that is combined with the two candidates' very different positions on other issues--such as abortion, guns, taxes, Social Security and spending--it's not surprising that there isn't much public demand for a discussion about high tech and government.

However, there is one big difference between the vice president and Texas Gov. Bush when the subject is technology: how they feel about it, and how they relate to technology.

Gore is an overt techie, a guy fascinated with technology itself. In the current issue of Red Herring magazine is an interview with Gore that's astonishing for its detail and for his familiarity with arcane computer science concepts. He draws analogies, for example, between the development of modern government and the chronological transition from "vector processing" to "parallel processing" in computer architectures.

If Gore spoke like this to general audiences on the campaign stump, most of his listeners would have gone into a collective coma. (The interview lends credence to the opinion, reportedly held by President Clinton, that Gore would have been happier as an academic than a politician, a job he doesn't really seem to enjoy.)

Gore has the role of the public technology visionary, the man who would send us into space, cure diseases, end hunger, clean up the environment and energetically celebrate scientists and engineers. His attraction to technology is romantic--it's his key to a much more interesting future. He's the straight-A student who knows his science and thinks it's all great.

Bush, however, doesn't really care about technology except to the extent that it makes people rich and the nation powerful. He finds no inherently fascinating features within computers or the Internet, the way Gore obviously does. Bush is probably much more representative of American men than Gore in this respect--the Internet only became interesting to most men when people started making money from it.

Bush is in the Ronald Reagan mold. He spends his spare time at his ranch near Waco, Texas, and he calls himself a "windshield rancher," someone who doesn't do the work but gets to drive around his property. This might be the male ideal of the "patron," the landowner, which is tied to the manly arts of sports, hunting, fishing and owning large animals. Fascination with technology is not viewed as feminine, but merely . . . well, "geeky."

For Bush, technology is important as a driving force in the economy and as a way to keep the U.S. No. 1 in military power. But it's not interesting in itself.

Granted, most Americans have already grasped the differences between the two candidates, a message encoded in their personalities.

It's a message Americans understand, even without details about policy disputes, because it's in a language that's familiar to all of us.


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