Cultural Studies: Hillary, Me and the Digital Divide

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On Dec. 23, 2009, Hillary Clinton, who was then secretary of state, sent an email on her private server to her aide Huma Abedin asking how to switch her home phone to fax mode. In the long chain that followed, Ms. Abedin explained, more than once: “Just pick up phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up.”

Madame Clinton, c’est moi.

The former first lady and current presidential candidate is also like a lot of other men and women who were adults when personal computers came into use, and who to this day cannot scan, iChat, use Spotify or hook up their Roku, and would prefer not to let the world — or their younger colleagues — in on their tech inadequacy. It’s the kind of admission of age-based incompetence best shared with only the closest advisers.

Hillary has Huma. I have extension 2020.

That’s the number reporters here at The New York Times call when they are having trouble with the paper’s secure server; technicians are available 24/7 to help people who can’t remember their password, don’t understand iCloud or don’t know how to get past the locked-key icon that blocks intruders from getting in.

I know them by name, and they sigh when they hear mine.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, the Trump campaign is not sick and tired of hearing about Mrs. Clinton’s emails. Yet oddly, in all the failings hurled at Mrs. Clinton at the Republican National Convention during the past week — venality, murder and reckless disregard for national security — there was no mention of her internet ignorance.

Even Donald J. Trump’s 22-year-old daughter, Tiffany, didn’t try to court her millennial peers by painting her father’s opponent as a technoramus.

Obviously, internet aversion was not the primary reason Mrs. Clinton had a private server installed in her house in Chappaqua, N.Y., rather than relying on the State Department system. Mrs. Clinton’s own emails made it clear she was far more obsessed with shielding herself from prying reporters and Republicans than enemy hackers. When a State Department deputy chief of staff for operations suggested in a 2010 email that she use the government system to avoid spam, she declined, writing, “I don’t want any risk of the personal being accessible.”

But it could be that one of the personal secrets she was hiding was her discomfort with the digital revolution.

On July 24, 2010, Mrs. Clinton had trouble using her iPad. “I don’t know if I have WIFI,” she wrote in an email to another close aide. “How do I find out?”

On Oct. 7, 2012, Mrs. Clinton emailed that aide: “Do you know what channel on the TV in DC is the program listing? And, specifically, what channel number is Showtime?” She added, “Because I want to watch ‘Homeland.’”

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Mrs. Clinton is not known for excessive humility or self-deprecation, so there is something almost touching about what she wrote in the subject line of the Showtime email: “stupid question.” And there were signs Mrs. Clinton wanted to improve. She asked her former chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, to lend her a book called “Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better.”

Nick Merrill, a Clinton spokesman, confirmed that on the road, Mrs. Clinton still uses a BlackBerry, even though the company announced this month that it was discontinuing the classic version with a physical keyboard and trackpad. “Sometimes it can be very tough to let go,” Ralph Pini, BlackBerry’s chief operating officer, wrote in a company blog post.

Mr. Merrill did not allow that his boss might be technologically challenged. He noted that, among other things, she sometimes uses Spotify.

Tech consultants are careful not to use the word “stupid” when instructing baby boomers. Some even avoid the word “easy.” Tariq Fayad, 27, a programmer and app designer in New York, said he no longer says a task is easy. “Because,” he explained, “sometimes it’s hard to teach.” He said he had learned to keep his instructions simple, especially with his parents. “I don’t tell my dad to swipe,” he said, “I say, ‘Put your finger on the screen and move it across really quickly.’”

Mr. Fayad gives his relatives free lessons. On the other hand, he is still on the family phone plan in Texas.

Once the server scandal erupted and investigations began, it was tricky for Mrs. Clinton’s aides to explain to outsiders what they were up against. Their private emails said it all. “I talked to Cheryl about this,” Lewis Lukens, a former high-level State Department official, wrote to a colleague who didn’t understand why the secretary of state didn’t check her emails on her office computer. “She says the problem is HRC does not know how to use a computer to do email, only BB.”

There are plenty of people who remember hot pants and Nixon’s wage and price controls and who clung to their BlackBerries at any cost.

Amanda Urban, the renowned literary agent, was so attached to hers that when her company, ICM Partners, stopped supporting the BlackBerry in 2014, she bought a $100 BlackBerry keyboard to fit on her iPhone. She then had to travel with two chargers and extra battery packs.

“My entire handbag was given over to the care and maintenance of my BB,” Ms. Urban said. “Frankly, I was relieved when ICM confiscated it — which is what they did. It was a Monday-morning intervention — no other way to describe it.” Ms. Urban adjusted to the iPhone, but she still mourns her first device. “The BB was far superior to do email on, and that is what Hillary has to think, too.”

For my personal devices, I rely on Kai Lui, a whiz technology consultant who makes house calls. I called Kai for this article and explained that I sympathized with Mrs. Clinton because when people say I am not tech-savvy, that hurts my feelings.

He waited a beat and replied, “You’re tech-savvy enough, Alessandra.”

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