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September 15, 2008



Tomi - I know this isn't really the point of your post, but I think it's an interesting twist to it...

As you undoubtedly know, John McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was considered a war hero for his selfless service to his country and to his fellow prisoners. You probably also know that he was tortured while he was a prisoner. I won't go into all the details, I'm sure you can Google them. :) However, one of the results of this torture is that he's unable to perform many tasks that are easy for you and me - such as tie his shoelaces and, yes, type on a keyboard. In short, he is disabled, and that disability creates a barrier to him using computers and the Internet that, up til now, he has found a way to be successful without seeking to overcome those barriers.

The interesting twist is to generalize this, just as you've generalized your observations of John McCain. Should we look down on disabled people, as you look down on Senator McCain, if their disabilities lead them towards different ways of interacting with the world than you and I have been led to do? You used the word "blind" in your post, but you put it in quotes. Do you think we should automatically eliminate a candidate for public office who is physically blind if they choose to spend their time interacting with the world in ways other than struggling with today's screen reader technologies?

Just curious...

Tomi T Ahonen

Hi Russ

Very good posting, thank you. I think there are two main issues here.

First, should we look down on disabled people, whatever their disability. I certainly feel strongly that no, absolutely not. And I know Alan feels the same way, and I believe from your posting that you too Russ think that way. I would expect most would tend to think so.

But the second issue is specifically McCain and a disability to using the internet? This I don't buy at all. I've done a considerable amount of research into the ergonomics, the haptics, the user interfaces and controls of high tech, earlier around the personal computer (For example, I was the egonomics consultant among my many duties for my employer when working for New Yorks' first internet service provider at the start of the last decade) and obviously more recently around the mobile phone. I was just hosting the global guru on phone handset design, my old friend and ex Nokia colleague Christian Lindholm who was on his first Hong Kong visit last week. We spent two days together discussing the industry - and related UI issues and its development. Christian even spoke on these matters at our Mobile Monday Hong Kong event a week ago.

So I do know quite a lot about this issue. And so, lets return to Senator McCain, and his injuries to his arms, and using a personal computer to access the internet. It is actually the personal computer, that is most suited for overcoming almost any disability - far more so even than the mobile phone for example. The PC is by far the most flexible technology to allow use and access by people of almost any disability, from fingers, hands, limbs, to even overcoming blindness ie braille readers - you can read and send emails, and yes, do google research, even if you're blind. You cannot drive a car, or read the time on most watches, or watch TV (yes you can listen to it) but on the personal computer, almost every disability has been solved.

It is much because of the modular nature of the technology, its set interfaces (and/or de-facto standards). So for example, again the specifics of McCain. I am not his doctor, and obviously do not know what specifically he can and cannot do. But he need not use a standard keyboard (and mouse). There are split keyboards, folding keyboards, unconventional keyboards; even more limited keypads that allow full text entry. There are cordless and wireless mice. There even are more extreme input methods all the way to using your toes or a pointer on your head or using the movement of the pupils of the eyes etc (this technology was adopted from US military aircraft, and as McCain has been involved in airforce procurement discussions in the Senate, he should know well about these developments).

There is NO excuse, whatsoever, for McCain not to be connected to the internet, due to his disabilities. Maybe he cannot fly a plane anymore or drive a car or salute a flag (the ultimate irony for such a war hero). But to say he didn't get online because of a disability, is certainly rejecting reality. In fact all over the world, the internet has had more rapid adoption by disabled people than the population at large, specifically, because it is that much more friendly to those with disabilities, than any other major technology on the planet, from the car to the TV set to the mobile phone to the wristwatch..

Good point, Russ, but totally not applicable to McCain. There are over 200 million Americans online. At the start of 2008, while running to be president of the USA, Senator McCain was one of the small minority still not online. He is very literally out of touch with America. As the world moves into an information age, he is truly a dinosaur. He is not qualified to lead the country where the information tech industry was created and where most of the IT tech leadership still lies.

Now, this is a view of a technologist, and obviously I cannot vote, and I greatly respect his heroic service to his country, his long career in the Senate, his maverick reputation, and - most of all - I respect his incredible forgiveness, that after all the years of torture, he was leading the fight to restore US relations with Vietnam. A true hero in every sense of the word. But being a hero does not make one inherently competent to be President of America. And if the world is having its next contest for global hegemony in the areas of the virtual worlds of the web, America cannot afford a dinosaur who did not even use the internet at the start of this year.

Note the differences. Lets use an analogy relevant to McCain's past as a fighter pilot. Before airplanes, there were military aircraft in the form of balloons, mostly used for artillery spotting, used even in the US civil war. Since the second world war, The predominant weapon of war to win wars, is the airplane (recalling that the nuclear bomb was delivered by airplane, and that nuclear missiles can also be counted in the advanced fields of aeronautics).

I say weapon of war, as one can reasonably argue, that information tech - from spying on the enemy to disrupting his systems, to efficiently managing our own troops - is the new top "weapon" (ie key to the rapid victory in Desert Storm). But information tech is not seen as a weapon, but rather a battlefield "force multiplier". Useful yes, but a satellite photo does not kill the enemy. A gun or tank or bomb dropped from a plane, kills the enemy.

So, aircraft. Imagine McCain's "army" for the future. He said he used no aircraft at the start of this year, but he is now adopting some balloons for his army. This is the analogy of the personal computer and the internet.

But Barack Obama's "army" is already fluent in using balloons in his army, and he is not only deploying fighter planes (ie mobile phones, the seventh of the mass media, by far faster and more far-reaching than the internet), he has fully trained his army to utilize fighter planes. Which army wins? If the ruling weapon today is the warplane, and one side has them (Obama) and the other side has none - this is a bloodbath.

Note, I am not talking about the Presidential campaign, I am talking about ruling the country after the election. Obama not only uses the older technology fluently - collecting names, mailing lists and interacting with blogs, Facebook and MySpace and YouTube etc; - that is the old way (balloons). He is also FLUENT in the newest and most powerful communication technology, mobile, from SMS texting to Twitter.

I think this is a "strategic" issue in the election. Its not covered much in the press, as its so techie-geeky side of the matter. But I was horrified to learn how unconnected Pres Bush was, after all he was a young President. But now, McCain.. he is a dinosaur, I'm sorry. And its not that he can point to a disability and say, but I am unable to use a PC...

Oh, just a minor personal angle. McCain was a fighter jockey. I am certain he misses the cockpit, in particular as he was shot down early in his career, as a young man. Had he bothered to learn to use a personal computer, he could have experienced very close virtual representation of flight, using PC based flight simulators. A real fighter pilot simulator has all the flight controls in the equivalent locations in the mock cockpit as on the real jet, so if McCain is unable to reach the controls of the real plane, he is unable also to use (normal) flight simulators. But a PC based flight simulator can have the controls set anywhere (moving the keyboard, joystick, etc) and he could have actually experienced the nearest thing to flying his A4 Skyhawk again.. But if he is not computer-literate, he will not even discover these delights.

This was something my step-father experienced as he showed me how he was flying a plane about a decade ago, after he had just bought (yet another) new game to his PC.. And like I said, my stepdad was a decade older than McCain. Its just attitude, not ability. McCain had decided he did not need to become connected. There was ZERO technical limitation due to physical disability, to him being able to connect to the web. He decided it was not important for him. Sorry, in my book, that means he is a dinosaur (just like any business exec who is not connected)

Its my view, and I hope very sincerely, that I did not offend any people with disabilities with that original posting (or this reply).

Thanks for writing Russ.

Tomi Ahonen :-)


"Its just attitude, not ability." True. Some in the ability challenged community avoid situations or experiences where they would be labeled disabled. Also, while using a computer is more accessible than ever, it was not always so nor was it designed to be. Advances improve everyday but if one has implemented other forms of information gathering that meet their needs, who am I to say they are wrong? I still read newspapers and magazines with my blogs.

Your posts are offensive because you state there must be a reason outside of a disability for not being proficient with computers from your limited knowledge of not possessing any challenge or community background. With the ease of information at our fingertips, you seem the dinosaur in attitude over ability.


I really enjoyed this post! i think you hit the nail on the head.

Tomi T Ahonen

Hi FeFe and Kathie

Thank you for your comments. I'll answer both separately.

FeFe. I am somewhat puzzled by your posting. Clearly you are offended, and I apologize for that. I did not mean to offend, but I am certain there must be many others who also feel like you do.

Let me try to see if we can find some commmon ground.

McCain (and Obama) are running to be President. They are not trying to become a cattle handler for example (Cowboy) or some other manual labor job, where arguably you really don't need much computer skills..

So the two candidates are intending to become the executive managers (the President) of the world's most powerful country, the biggest economy, and by coincidence also of the country that happens to be the current leader in the biggest efficiency gain in both power and economy - the IT industry.

An executive of any organization has to make decisions on imperfect information. The bigger the organization, the more that information gets filtered. I hoped to make that clear in my original posting. I am an MBA, trained in this. I worked as an executive at Nokia's HQ in Finland, I've seen it first hand for years. I now am a consultant, advising mostly business executives (Presidents, CEOs, Chairmen, Board Members) but many of my customers have been with various goverments around the world (about digital technology matters, obviously, not in the top national or international political matters). And I have spoken in public for over a decade, and written six books, and lecture at Oxford - so its not like my views are a hidden bizarre quirky extremist blogger somewhere, I'm very widely quoted and visible. With a considered view. And very much a respected authority on the digital future, how high technology changes our lives - including government - and about how to educate and re-educate to get those skills.

I don't mean to suggest that means I am right. I do mean to suggest, that my views are long term considered, widely respected, and perhaps deserve the benefit-of-the-doubt, with this background.

But even so, I totally understand, that it is possible to be factually right, and still be offensive in how the point is delivered. So I am not in any way denying, that my blog offended you, and very likely thus many others. I am truly sorry, that was not my intention.

I hope your view is not colored by a bias in the election and perhaps your preference of McCain over Obama? If so, are you certain, that you can remain neutral in considering this matter - perhaps a critical matter if this crazy Ahonen happens to be right - in how effective McCain could be as the Chief Executive of your country, and/or if he might be duped and misled and fed untruths (as clearly seemed to have happened in the rapid vetting and appointment of Governor Palin for VP)

With all that, let me go to your points. I hope we can find common ground.

You said you agree with the point that it is "attitude not ability". Then you point out that some will avoid situations that might expose their disability. I understand that and appreciate that. You then suggest that any given person should be able to select which method(s) they use to gather their information. That a newspaper or magazine is still valid today. You don't need to read blogs to be informed.

That is all true, I do not dispute that. You and I are not involved in a by-the-minute changing world where a Russia invades a Georgia one day, a bomb explodes in Yemen a moment later, an investment bank goes bankrupt while a giant insurance company needs to be financially rescued. All while a North Korean dictator has gone missing, nuclear bombers fly into hostile Venezuela, and Iran continues developing its bomb and genocide continues in Darfur and an uneasy political truce seems to hold in Zimbabwe. And a famed 9/11 terrorist continues to hide and issue new statements.

That world of the US President, is by every measure, the most demanding executive position, in terms of global impact, and how that relates to the US citizens - in anything from the interest rates paid to China on loans to pay the enormous deficits, to the price of oil, all while nature tosses Texas-sized storms from the Atlantic, one after another.

That President cannot - I repeat - cannot survive by reading a newspaper. That news is yesterday's headline. That President has to have 24 hour TV news on in the White House, every channel, What is CNN reporting and the other big news organzations, what is happening in the markets ie Bloomberg or CNBC, and the various international 24 hour news feeds - including Europe ie BBC News, Euronews etc; what is in Asia ie Channel News Asia - and even what is happening in the Muslim world, ie Al Jazeera etc.

A US President cannot be effective if he relies on outdated information gathering. I don't mean that the Wall Street Journal or NY Times or Washinton Post (or Time, Newsweek, Economist etc) do not break news or provide valid analysis, yes, there of course is staff to cover all the main news sources.

But the President cannot react in a global economy to a sudden crisis, if he reads about it tomorrow, in the newspaper.

I am sure you agree. That yes, 24 hour news is obviously a must-follow in the White House, to get earliest warning of breaking news, to give the President maximum time to gather his advisors and take some time to consider, before making executive decisions (when necessary) and/or ignore matters if that is the prudent thing to do.

Now, please hold that thought.

That 24 hour TV news concept is 25 years old, when CNN went live in the beginning of the 1980s.

The internet is only half that age, and broke to the mass market only in 1994, when Time and Newsweek put it on their covers that year.

I have been advocating this technology (and obviously mobile after that) ever since then, when I was employed by the first Internet Service Provider of New York City at that time. I have argued for a long time - including at this blog for three years and in my six books - that the COMMUNICATION ability that these new technologies provide, give a massive efficiency gain in any communication situations.

Imagine if the new President came to the White House, and said, he does not believe in using the telephone. His first act is to disconnect the telephone and he would force his administration to communciate with letters and carrier pidgeons and semaphore flag signals.

The President would promptly be impeached as demonstratibly insane.

The telephone was NOT initially a communciation system. The first use of the telephone was an alarm system - fire alarms for wealthy people. Then it became an alert system (think of your SMS text messaging or Blackberry emails today, or of beepers and pagers in the past). Only after those, gradually, as the mass market started to afford telephones, they became instruments for conversations - and people started to learn to chat on a phone, to "reach out and touch" as the old AT&T commercial used to go.

That was NOT the initial intention of the telephone. But today, nobody considers buying a first time phone for fire alarm use.. The technology has changed over time.

Yet today, the telephone is one of the most vital communciation systems of any reasonably "normal" person (ie excepting some very hermit-like people who hate to interact with anyone). Certainly in politics - where the job is to serve others of that political community - a communication technology - like the telephone - is vital.

Now. Please stay with me. The telephone has been with us for over 100 years. The internet only became viable as a mass market technology in the last decade. John McCain was in Congress when the internet became viable as a communciation platform ie through email (and later also a media platform).

When he went to serve in Washington, as part of Reagan's foot soldiers, the PC was very geeky, difficult, and needed hours of professional training just to be able to be used. I remember, I was an authorized trainer for PCs at the time, helping many people understand how to get form the "DOS Prompt" into Wordperfect of Lotus 1-2-3 etc. How to print etc. This was when we did not use a mouse, the screen did not provide links for us, and there was no worldwide web for the internet.

Had McCain been a "normal person" and not in Washington, and changed his military career into say a university professorship in Arizona, or working say as a mid manager with a small aviation company or whatever would suit his naval aviation background; he would normally and naturally have picked up computing skills, as a formality of being a normal American at the time. Four in five Americans are online (total, across the population, so most who are not, are so young they can't read or write yet)

But McCain went to Washington just when the Internet emerged. He then has been involved in the daily politics of that circus. He has had staff from then on. And he has thus had younger people working for him - who have been online long ago - his younger wife is online and connected obviously - but he never felt it was necessary for him to learn.

Now. That is his right and his decision. There are people who make the decision to not watch TV, and I respect that too and probably there are people somewhere who refuse to use the telephone out of princple (I don't mean the Amish who do so out of religious dogma, which I also respect). But if you made a conscious decision not to ever watch TV, then that pretty well kills your chances of elected national office (in a modern country like the USA, I am not talking of some developing country countries).

So - the long story. There is a communication technology which is inherently better than a telephone, a letter or a telegraph; which can in fact conveniently supplant and supercede all those with similar but superior variants (Skype calls, email etc) in the efficiency of communciation. That is the internet. It is ALSO a superior mass media - blogs report news (and falsehoods) faster than the 24 hour broadcast news in almost all breaking news cases.

This change came in the last dozen years. Obama was on the outside of Washington and saw it happen when he was in Chicago. He learned of its power because he was forced to use it himself. McCain was isolated when the change came, and he didn't see the need to get to terms with it.

I totally admit that its McCain's prerogative to select which media he personally selects to follow for his news. And that its his prerogative to select which methods of communication he uses. His (younger) staff will automatically gear to the most efficient as it is, simply due to the pressures of the job, and managing the enormous information flows and communication requests. They all are armed with Blackberries and they all do use SMS texting etc.

But McCain does not. As I explained in the original blog, he does not google. That puts McCain at an ENORMOUS disadvantage to anyone who does. At a disadvantage to .. Ahmadinajad ! At a disadvantage to .. Kim Jong Il (if he is still alive).. At a disadvantage to .. Putin (and the new guy, Medvedev). These all are online.

YOU use the internet, obviously, you found us here. You use google. You can witness to the power of search, and can at a mere eleven keystrokes type in my name and google Tomi Ahonen and see if I am a total weirdo, or perhaps I do have some merit to what I say and perhaps others refer to me (and whether that is on issues of digital communciation and digital media, or perhaps my fame is based on my other blog about Formula One racing ha-ha)

But your prospective President is denied this power?

That DOES disqualify him in my book. Not eight years ago when this President Bush was first elected, when I believed passionately in the internet and mobile, but less than half of Americans were online. But today, yes, there is no excuse for McCain.

And like I wrote, there are keypads, keyboard, speech recognition, joysticks, modems, etc that allow efficient use of the internet by FAR more disabled people than McCain. FAR more disabled..

Its a question of his attitude. He decided this was not worth his while. He delegated this to his staff, and now is captive of that decision.

I hope I made my point, sorry it was long, but again, this is a hobby blog and I do have a day job to get to.. Thank you for writing FeFe, and I hope you might return to continue to dialogue.

Kathie - thank you. Yeah.. you and I see this in the same way. Cheers.. :-)

Thank you both for writing

Tomi Ahonen :-)

Kai S

Haha, great post, I'm just afraid that this valuable skill will be lost in the political spin that will doubtlessly dominate the airwaves untill election day.

Lets hope the mobilised politcal "sleeper" i.e. young people are sufficiently motivated by the breath of fresh air one of the candidates demonstrates ;)


Tomi Ahonen

Hi Kai

Thanks. Yeah, but we're in quite a geeky area anyway, with mobile messaging as a marketing vehicle still today, so even small steps, mostly in the background, will help. But we'll keep our eyes on this story, if any stats come out, we'll report on them..


Tomi :-)

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