Andrew Keen on New Media: Obama's medium is the message McCain does not want to hear

Monday 22 September 2008 00:00

Rather than the YouTube election, the 2008 Obama-McCain race is becoming the text-messaging and email election. First, Barack Obama text-messaged the announcement of his choice of vice-presidential running mate to several hundred thousand of his most intimate friends. Then he came out with a television advertisement suggesting that John McCain's inability to send an email made him unfit to be the next president. And now Governor Sarah Palin, McCain's iconoclastic, gun-toting Alaskan wild- card pick, may have sent too many emails for her own good.

The Obama decision on 23 August to text-message his choice of Joe Biden is ironic. His 3am text-message blast was supposed be a symbolically radical statement, the dawning of a new digital age in which the Democratic candidate bypassed mainstream media and personally communicated breaking news directly with his followers. The irony, however, is that Obama couldn't have made a more conservative choice, the six-term senior Senator from Delaware being the consummate Washington DC political insider. If, as Marshall McLuhan famously believed, "the message is the medium", then Obama should have sent out the Biden announcement by carrier pigeon.

With McCain, the irony is reversed. The incendiary implications of the unknown Sarah Palin VP pick are still reverberating through American living rooms. Using McLuhanesque logic, this radical message should have been announced in alternative reality in the virtual world of Yet McCain tossed his Palin grenade in the down-to-earth reality of a Midwestern convention centre – announcing his choice on 29 August at a rally in Dayton Ohio's appropriately named Nutter Centre.

But then perhaps McCain made his radical announcement in person because he doesn't know how to send emails. That would certainly be Barack Obama's explanation. The BlackBerry addicted Senator from Illinois has strong feelings about McCain's disinterest in new media. The wired Obama even came out with a television advertisement earlier this month labelling McCain a Luddite and technophobe because the 72-year-old Senator from Arizona doesn't know how to either use a computer or send email.

The McCain campaign responded, as it usually does, by playing its Vietnam card. Apparently McCain loves computers, but can't actually use a keyboard because of old war wounds picked up in North Vietnam's Hanoi Hilton. So, instead of sending emails himself, he dictates the message to his wife Cindy, who transcribes and sends them on his behalf – thereby replacing McLuhan's "the media as the message" dictum with McCain's alternative "the wife as the messenger" wisdom.

Maybe Palin could learn something from McCain inactivity on the email front. While McCain doesn't send enough emails, it seems like Palin has been sending too many. So many, indeed, that her email account got broken into by a hacker who then released her personal Yahoo address book and various private emails on to the internet.

So what's next in this email and text-message election? So far, there's been no direct email flame war between any of the candidates. Nor have any of them got caught text-messaging sweet nothings to an illicit lover. That may all change though. There's still over 40 days till the election and, to remix some words of wisdom from Harold Wilson, six weeks is a long time in new media.

Are your kids turning into mini media moguls? How 'big mother' could put you back in control

Over the last few months, my precocious 10-year-old has appropriated significant sums of my own hard-earned cash via various rather dubious entrepreneurial schemes in order to purchase his own laptop computer. And now this mini media mogul is on the internet all day long, instant-messaging his cousins in Alabama and Bangkok, suffering through the latest Spurs debacle on, downloading God knows what from God knows where on to his iPod.

Help! What should I do?

I'm not alone, of course. Most parents these days are equally bemused by the 24-hour online habits of their digitally obsessed young offspring. So it was with more than just professional curiosity that I sought the counsel of online mom Monica Vila, the New York based founder and chief technology officer of a brightly lit, tastefully designed new website called (right), an information resource for both moms and dads to learn to cope with the internet.

When I spoke to Vila on the telephone last week, I asked the 15-year technology veteran to list the three most important pieces of advice for confused parents like myself. First, she said, parents need to learn to embrace not only the internet, but also the whole idea of technology as a form of personal empowerment. Second, parents need to lay down a very clear set of rules laying out the parameters of their kid's internet use. And third, moms and dads should always activate parental controls on all computers used by children under the age of 17.

Launched only a month ago, the angel-financed is a really promising source of both entertainment and education for parents, providing moms and dads with very useful tools not only for managing the technology use of pre-teens and teens but also for kids in the 3-8 age bracket. With the launch of, I no longer have any excuse to put off laying down a strict new regime for controlling my 10-year-old's internet usage.

* I was in San Francisco last week, keynoting the annual convention of the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Marketing Development. I found a consensus amongst American healthcare professionals for the need for an online rating system to determine the reliability of online medical information. Some quoted a 2006 Pew Research report stating that only 15% of online patients check the source and date of the health information they find online. This translates into 85 million Americans who are going online for healthcare information but failing to even consider the veracity of its source.

This uncritical acceptance of medical information on the internet is a generational thing, many of the healthcare experts I met last week in San Francisco told me. In particular, Gen Y'ers (the under 30 year olds) are much too uncritical of the online medium, even trusting the medical information on Wikipedia, the notorious open-source online encyclopedia which literally enables any quack to edit health-related information.

So don't believe everything you read online about healthcare. Just as it's always wise to get a second opinion from a doctor, so the smart internet user relies on more than one website or blog for their medical information. And do try to check your sources. Some blogs are fronts for pharmaceutical companies, while others are authored by anonymous crackpots. It's your health that is at stake here. Without an official rating system to determine the reliability of online medical content, the only way to cure internet misinformation is by rigorously checking both the source and date of all online healthcare content.

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