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William Murchison
William Murchison
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McCain And The Computer


Come on. Give an old man half a chance.

I speak for myself as well as for John McCain.

No more sneering talk of the sort we've heard lately concerning McCain's ineptitude when it comes to computers — an ineptitude he's striving to overcome.

Give us a break. At a moment of immense challenges to the national well-being, there must be, conservatively speaking, about 5,000 things more urgent than the ability to spread a spreadsheet and hammer out e-mail. Yet the rap goes on: If the guy can't do computers, blah, blah, blah ...

Well, horsefeathers! retorts a man on the slightly younger end of the McCain generation.

The computer is a welcome addition to our communications toolbox. The whole toolbox it ain't and, what's more, never will be.

Let me attempt a note of sobriety in this giddy debate over McCain's non-computer prowess. No invention ever changes the world in quite the thoroughgoing way its early adepts envision. Nor do certain fundamentals of life ever disappear — praise the Lord.

The Dallas Morning News, for whom I worked in the typewriter/hot lead days, taught me the computer a decade ago. I use the computer every day and like it fine. I e-mail; I edit; I research; I write. Perhaps it takes a fringe member of the McCain generation to appreciate how instantaneous has research become thanks to the World Wide Web. There always will be things you can't, or don't want to, ferret out on-line, but the number is diminishing. I recently wanted the Spanish word for "shame." I Googled it, got it immediately, remembered then that I knew it, but so what? I had it.

And yet ... And yet ...

A few ineffaceable black marks attach to computers and the web. The computer, I have often remarked, is the greatest time-wasting invention of all time. You can't — sometimes — quit doing e-mail; you can't — even more frequently, I would judge — shut off the information flow.

An hour passes; then 90 minutes. You're taking it all in. Just why, you can't always say.

The biggest time-wasters on the greatest time-wasting invention of all time are blogs. I don't mean, of course, all blogs. Some inform, some energize. The blogger's credentials you can't know except over time, and in the Internet age, with millions of blogs out there to check, how much time have you got? Moreover, reader comments on blogs range from snippy to contemptuous to stupid — in far higher degree than letters to the editor (as I know from years of editing letters). Blogs don't precisely promote reasonable discourse.

Nor good composition habits. In e-mail, as in blogs, the mission is just to get it out there: never mind grammar, spelling and other such restraints on self-expression. From which neglect bad habits take root.

Worst of all in some sense is the format — the small, blinking screen. Oddly — and it's very odd indeed — the Web is pushing newspapers and even magazines over the economic edge. The oddity stems from the limitations of substituting a screen for paper. A newspaper is marvelously efficient; you page through it — dip in, dip out; tear out if you want; wrap fish in it. The computer makes you call up things you don't care about to find what you do care about. Then it makes you scroll down the story: your back straining forward instead of relaxed comfortably in a chair, as with a book or a newspaper. Eventually readers will figure out what a lousy reading device the computer is.

John McCain and I, by then, will be blind or dead, but what of it? In the Great Reading Room in the Sky we'll shake hands, nodding wisely. This computer thing, we'll acknowledge — we knew all along it was a big deal, just not nearly as big as the enthusiasts averred. Hear me, all you enthusiasts? As the more decorous kind of blog reader would put it: I'm right! You're nuts!

William Murchison is a senior fellow of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. To find out more about William Murchison and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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