Commentary: Political conventions on wrong side of the digital divide

20160807_inq_op1barnett07-a
Cheering delegates at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.

Ned Barnett

is the editorial page editor of the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer

For all their talk of the future, political conventions are nostalgic. They summon history and draw upon ingrained loyalties. And they are in themselves throwbacks, a gathering of hats and signs in a telecommuting time.

Democracy is wonderful theater, but I was struck this year by how both conventions were theater without connection to reality. For neither convention directly addressed what is now central to the American experience - the digital revolution.

Meanwhile, the world is being rushed into a dizzying tomorrow by smartphones attached to a network of computer servers, a reality that was barely a glimmer when Hillary Clinton took the national stage as first lady or when Donald Trump raised Trump Tower. Digital technology is dissolving and creating jobs, but mostly dissolving them. It's replacing people with algorithms and creating a vacuum into which a generation of those without special skills are falling, their labor unneeded, their options foreclosed.

The problem isn't immigrants taking jobs. It's not that trade deals are sending work overseas. It's that we need fewer bank tellers, travel agents, librarians, cabdrivers, phone operators, auto mechanics, newspaper columnists, or any number of workers whose knowledge and skills have been replaced or offset by computers and universal access to instant information.

That is the fundamental disruption that's causing American anxiety. Computers, robots, and the enormous productivity gains enabled by the internet are bringing forth a world in which human labor is both less needed and in greater surplus. That is why the owners of capital and the managers of their money are seeing great gains in wealth while wages for most Americans are stagnant.

Yet there was no central focus on a transformation that is roiling every corner of life. That disconnect endured even as two of the election season's biggest issues and even the conventions' biggest stories involve computers and the internet. Republicans focused on Clinton's careless exposure of her private email server, and Democrats attacked Trump's urging Russians to hack that server. The blowup over Melania Trump's plagiarism was ignited by a laid-off journalist sitting in a Los Angeles coffee shop 2,000 miles from the Cleveland Republican convention. All he needed was a hunch, his phone, and access to Google and Twitter.

Indeed, Trump's very ascension to the Republican nomination is less about his appeal to racism and xenophobia than it is about his mastery of Twitter and the news cycle defined by Facebook, YouTube, and Google. Terrorism - the uniting concern of both conventions - is fueled by the internet and its impact is magnified by internet videos. Racial tension over police shootings and attacks have also been driven by smartphone videos.

Yet the conventions, while thoroughly wired to social media, proceeded with their stagecraft and balloon drops like the conventions of a century ago, when the speakers could not see how the emerging internal combustion engine, telephones, and aircraft were about to change everything.

I am perhaps more sensitive to this, being in the newspaper business, a struggling industry that only 15 years ago was very profitable and is now urgently going digital. Newspapers have lost thousands of workers in the last decade. The building where I work has been sold, and I've watched the old, ink-stained presses pulled from the building and deposited in the sunny parking lot like iron dinosaurs unearthed. The image makes it easy to imagine the dislocation of workers in mill towns with shuttered mills, former union workers who have lost their union jobs, and small farmers displaced by computer-driven industrial farms.

A sizable percentage of American workers now stand in the same place as elevator operators. And they are not going up.

The jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron sang, "The revolution will not be televised." No, the revolution will be digitized. The change involves us, but it is really about machines that have slipped into reality from science fiction. It is an inhuman revolution and, for those left behind, inhumane.

On the night Trump accepted the Republican nomination with a speech that described a divided, vulnerable, and dangerous America, I passed through Nash Square in downtown Raleigh. Usually it would be deserted at 10 p.m., but this night it was full of young people shuffling, murmuring in an almost monastic procession, their faces aglow with the lights of their phones as they pursued Pokémon Go figures assigned to the square as part of the wildly popular online game.

None of those young people were listening to the 70-year-old Trump lament a nation falling apart. Their world was safe and well enough that they had time to indulge in a collective fantasy. They were not looking at TVs. They were looking into their phones and, in a sense, their futures.

For all the fanfare and eloquence of the conventions, the political gatherings did not speak to the dislocation and, one hopes, the promise of the digital revolution. We will vote for candidates and presumably for a future, but it is how we adjust to computers and the internet - from automation to surveillance - that will determine how well and how freely we live tomorrow.

nbarnett@newsobserver.com