Etcetera

Making Presidential Debates Worthy of the Office

This is a reprint (with permission) of a column I wrote for the San Jose Mercury News in 2004, during that year’s presidential campaign. I’ve added a few links. In several respects I’ve changed my mind about real-time fact-checking, but I’d still like to see a more “we” approach to debates than the “I” crapola we have now.

In the 2004 presidential campaign’s latest detour into relative trivia, there’s been a small uproar over whether President Bush was wearing some kind of audio receiver during one or more of the debates with John Kerry. The implication was that the president might have been getting unfair coaching.

Bush and his people deny they broke the rules prohibiting such devices or other aids. I don’t see any big reason to doubt them even if the bulge in the back of Bush’s suit was remarkably rectangular.

I would argue that in this case the rules need updating. Voters would have been better off if the candidates had all kinds of technology at their disposal, so they could double-check their own facts and precisely rebut opponents’ misstatements.

In the Information Age, the ability to find relevant information quickly and use it intuitively will be at least as important as the ability to memorize numbers or slogans. This will be as true for everyday people as presidents and their staffs, and powerful tools will soon be at our beck and call.

Technological aids of this sort aren’t new, though their use has sometimes been contested. Remember the debate when children first started taking calculators to school? It was assumed (with some truth) that kids would forgethow to add and multiply the old-fashioned way, using a pencil and paper.

Of course, the abacus and slide rule predated the electronic calculator. Were those shortcuts also a problem?

It wasn’t so long ago, meanwhile, that we had to go to the public library to look up facts in books or periodicals we didn’t own. I love libraries, and they’re still essential institutions for many things, but more and more data and facts can be found online.

School officials have gone into panic mode because students are telling each other answers to specific questions via mobile phone text messages. Maybe the answer is to make most testing an ”open book” process, where the student ultimately shows a command, or not, of the subject in other ways than rote memorization.

As information technology becomes embedded into more of what we touch, and as wired and wireless networks become more ubiquitous, we can expect to be able to look things up pretty much everywhere. This will be no more unusual for people tomorrow than it was to pull out a calculator a decade ago.

How far might this go? Advances in display technology suggest that eyeglasses will soon become excellent data displays, and eventually digital technology will augment our eyes directly. Audio will have a similar trajectory.

I’ve often said I’d like to have a music implant in the brain, letting me ”know” the scales without thinking about them. This wouldn’t make me more musical, but it would free some time for more valuable kinds of practice and creativity.

As facts, figures and other data become instantly retrievable, many kinds of endeavors will change. One is journalism.

Imagine, for example, that a journalist in the future is interviewing a corporate chief executive or politician, and that the reporter can double-check what he or she has been told on the spot. Imagine further that the journalist is broadcasting the interview in real time to a cadre of experts who can suggest follow-up questions or point out misstatements on the fly. Interviews would never be the same.

The ”fact squads” major news organizations assembled during the debates to check candidates’ statements were operating in something close to real time, but not close enough for me. I would prefer to see TV networks flash corrections on the screen as soon as they caught the candidate in a lie. Distracting? Perhaps, but maybe the candidates would lie less often or at least less brazenly.

Even more valuable would be giving the candidates more tools to correct each other. I would build a personal computer into each podium, connected to whatever online resources the candidate and his staff found useful.

I would hate to see candidates and officials rely entirely on technological props, because preparing for debates and press conferences is a vital way for politicians to synthesize details into coherent policies. I would hope for some balance, and that we could find out when someone was just reciting someone else’s lines on the fly.

But when I vote for a candidate, I’m not looking for a wonk whose chief skill seems to be rattling off facts and figures. I’m looking for people with strategic vision and the ability to lead. Leave the memorization — the details — to other people, and to Google.

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