Make what you will about President Obama, his record, and his accomplishments to this point. There are contentions to be made on each, of course, but let’s leave those for another time and talk now about the modern ear, listening for clues in a politician’s voice. Clues, that is, to what kind of reality they live in — is it ours, or one only loosely based on our surroundings?
In the United States currently, the basic details in these conflicting realities are roughly the same: jobs in America are scarce, wages are stagnant, and the external threats are more nihilistic and complicated than perhaps ever before. A subjective ear will hear what it wants in each version of reality, probably. So how do we really tell them apart? Is there a point on which we can agree there is a dividing line — where the fork splits one definitively from the other?
The machines may not save us, but here they might at least help.
In terms of importance, Obama listed technology second in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. “Let’s talk about the future,” he said, “and four big questions that we as a country have to answer.” How, he asked, do “we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?” Then, he went on, “how do we make technology work for us, and not against us — especially when it comes to solving urgent challenges like climate change?” These are two questions, divided for rhetorical flair, but the second will give the answer to the first.
Obama listed a few things done (“protected an open internet”, getting more people online) and a few things needing doing (clean energy, “building a 21st century transportation system”, curing cancer). There are surely quibbles with the accomplishments and questions on the commitments, but there is in these promises, at least, what sound like a description of the world we see — with an internet we use that must remain neutral, a climate we live in that cannot sustain too much more of the same old energy production, and the subsequent need to rethink how we get around.
So, then, what of this other reality that is being described lately? What happens to technology in the other version of things? It is a truly baffling thing — a Schrodinger’s paradox, where we are to believe that technology is both there and not.
Back in 2015, some months ago, Ben Carson, a sort-of-leading candidate for the Republican side was also talking about technology. Net neutrality, he said then, was a way for Obama to “impose another level of secrecy and control in the private lives of citizens.” Ted Cruz, another has-a-chance candidate was equally confused on the subject. “Obamacare for the internet,” he proclaimed it. Carly Fiorina, that former Hewlett-Packard head talked a good game on giving the NSA servers after 9/11, but it was already historic discussion. Who supplies hardware anymore? It’s data that matters now.
Then there is Trump. He would use “our most brilliant minds”, not to answer the questions Obama has posed, but to “figure out a way that ISIS cannot use the internet.” On this point, he was corrected by Rand Paul, but only on a related technicality — that doing such a thing would mean changing the constitution — not on its premise.
It has been so far an odd collection of thoughts from this crowd on what technology is and what it can do. So odd, one might wonder if it is perhaps just purely ignorant. But it can’t be! Surely no! It cannot be straight ignorance that prompts these lines for one simple reason: It is simply not plausible here and now, in this day and age, to be as uninformed as these 2016 Republicans appear to be. After all, they use the internet don’t they? They tweet and post and RT, right? And their version of America’s current reality — not to mention the direction it ought to take in the future — was first crafted online in the blogs and the forums and the tweets of all those Tea Party patriots, was it not?
What these GOP hopefuls therefore present is an inherent contradiction: to varying degrees all modern, internet candidates, yet apparently they are blind to the fact that modernity, or the internet, exist. No wonder even for those whose ears are tuned to the proper frequency are confused, like those Cruz supporters who regarded his comparison of Obamacare to net neutrality and agreed that it was totally nuts. It is a weird state of affairs.
But out of the confusion comes clarity, if we know what we’re listening for. For it is on technology we decipher the split, where we can hear the difference most clearly between what is being said and what reality it depicts. It is the bullshit threshold.