The weeks after a presidential election are a sobering time for incoming and outgoing presidents alike ... as well as for followers of both. It's usually the day where people "come back to the office" and start to assess just how much work needs to be done. In the case of the incoming Obama administration, this to do list is likely already huge and growing.
Technology is very sensitive to political realities. The Bush administration in particular tended to focus heavily on promoting technologies that enhanced business, military and security needs of the country, especially in the wake of 9/11, yet beyond these core areas limited spending in most areas of science and technology.
This focus was reflected in the companies and projects that received the greatest government largess (and by extension, also received the largest private investment). For instance, after 9/11, e-mail spam, an issue that had become an increasing nuisance through the Clinton years, suddenly became a security issue, leading to increased AI capabilities for filtering ever more sophisticated spam. Anti-virus software exploded, and operating systems (especially Microsoft Windows) placed a premium upon fixing system security leaks in order to not be seen as vulnerable to malware.
A second consequence of 9/11 was the realization that disruptions happen and need to be built into IT plans as well as business ones. The effects of this particular realization are still being felt, as IT managers gain more and more options to virtualize and distribute their operations ... and it is very likely that cloud computing, something only dimly beginning to appear before Bush was elected in 2000, would be nowhere near as far along without the kick start in risk management that the War on Terror helped establish.
Bush's legacy will also be felt in the development of "Total Information Awareness" (TIA) systems that are beginning to make their way back into the commercial sphere from their initial use in the Iraq and Afghan Wars. This philosophy is key towards the building of immersive information systems, ones that can be carried with you via headsets and local telemetry units, capable of providing detailed annotative information about the environment around you. Several contracting companies are involved in building these immersive TIA units, as these wars wind down, it is very likely that these same companies will start developing corresponding commercial systems that can be used by manufacturers in factories, by police during encounters with suspects, and by the entertainment industry.
Overall, the Bush administration has generally been non-interventionist with regards to business, but even here there are exceptions. Perhaps one of the more significant developments from a technology standpoint has been the rise of XBRL as the foundation for a new regulatory mechanism for business reporting, as part of the late-cycle EDGAR and early IDEAS programs, especially through promotion by SEC Chairman Chris Cox.
Changing of the Guard
The election of Barack Obama brings with it a likely dramatic shift in terms of national priorities, and these shifting priorities themselves have profound ramifications for IT moving forward. Many of these policies have already been articulated in his own position papers during the election, and the technology platform document is worth reading as at least an indicator or where he will attempt to govern as a technologist.
One of the first of these changes is likely to be dealing with an inherited problem - the meltdown occurring in the economy at the present moment. The ugly reality facing any president at this point is that what is happening now is very much akin to an avalanche - the momentum toward rapid deflation is already baked into the marketplace, and it is very likely that the economy will continue to decline regardless of what measures are made to stop it.
The reasons for this deleveraging process right now are already fairly well known after months of relentless losses, but one effect of this is that it is removing a lot of the unsecured credit that has built up since the 1980s, through years of low grade inflation and massive stimulus packages (from both sides of the political aisle) that have given short term boosts to the economy at the cost of a single massive long term bust which we are going through now.
It is thus likely that Obama's key thrusts in dealing with the economic meltdown will be two-fold: provide a means to cushion the worst of the effects on the economy as positions unwind on those who are most vulnerable, and, more importantly, put into place key foundational laws in order to help the economy rebuild into a model that works better with twenty-first century technology and for the people who exist in that economy.
It is thus latter thrust that will likely have the larger impact upon the technology sector. It is very likely that with the nationalization of a number of key banks, insurance companies and infrastructure companies that Obama, a centrist Democrat, will use this period to force these organizations to become more transparent, and will likely expand significantly upon the use of the SEC IDEAS programming in order to force these changes on organizations that are concerned about necessarily airing out their dirty laundry. Some of these banks may (and probably should) fail, but ultimately the goal should be to separate the solid performing loans from the defaulted ones and to provide a mechanism to make this process both transparent and as minimally harmful as possible.
The Nation's CTO?
One of the key intentions of the Obama administration is to keep these organizations under federal ownership only until such time as they (or their successors) can afford to stand on their own. Both based on his own statements in this regard and those of others on his platform, the former US Senator has indicated that he has no desire for the US Government to run businesses any longer than absolutely necessary.
One aspect of this will be the creation of the first Cabinet-level Chief Technology Officer (CTO). This has the potential to have a huge impact upon the way that the US Federal Government operates. Currently, every department and agency has its own internal IT department, typically operating in comparative isolation and usually very heavily siloed. In the late 1990s, President Clinton set up the eGov inititative in order to standardize on the types of forms and data structures used within each agency, an exercise that was echoed through the Department of Defense in their own standardization efforts, but much of this effort slowed during the Bush Administration as priorities shifted into wartime efforts.
The creation of a Federal CTO will mean first of all that this initiative (or more likely a successor to it) will be set up to strengthen inter-departmental communication. It also means that a specific person exists to be able to arbitrate disputes at the IT level, which implies that such a CTO should him or herself also be technically competent as well as managerially competent.
Additionally, a Cabinet-level CTO would significantly raise the level of influence that the technology sector would be able to bring to the table, someone capable of making recommendations on the technologically aspects of various legislation ... and have the authority to implement these recommendations into government. Given that governmental standards and mandates tend to have a disproportionate effect upon technology companies (who are most likely the ones to implement software and hardware around these standards), the role of a knowledgeable and influential CTO cannot be minimized.
This does admittedly raise the question about whether this would also be an administrative position - i.e., whether an agency would be formed to help carry out such implementations. One conjecture is that this may be a good time to reorganize the government's "technology plays" and place the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the US Patent Office, the Federal Communications Commission and a primary IT organization under the single umbrella of the Department of Science and Technology.
The effect of this would be to give many of these organizations, which are often marginalized in terms of budget appropriation, a single authoritative funding source. It would also make it possible to coordinate communication and information flow between these organizations in a way that, to date, has proven problematic at best.
Networks and Net Neutrality
The Internet assumes a disproportionately large presence in terms of technology adoption by the Obama administration. One key provision in this discussion is the concept of Net Neutrality, the idea that there should be no preferential treatment in terms of the identity of packets and how they are routed. Net Neutrality is an engineering issue that has become a political one.
Telecommunication companies in particular oppose the idea of net neutrality, because they recognize that by being able to designate specific premium rates for packets of a given type (or originating from a specific router and IP address) they can benefit from the differential between regular and premium service. On the other hand, Internet content providers or search engine companies are generally in favor of Net Neutrality because it increases their potential user base, and because the precedent that not having Net Neutrality opens up increases the balkanization of the web, not just in the US but throughout the world.
This is a particularly contentious issue even within the administration. While President-elect Obama has come out in favor of net neutrality, Vice President-elect Biden was one of the biggest champions in the fight against it on the Democratic side, although there are indications that his stance has shifted since then. Certainly net neutrality was a key part of Obama's technology platform during the campaign.
Another potential move on the part of the incoming administration is to begin the process of migrating Internet 2 out of its current niche within academia to become the backbone for the next generation of public network. This will have to be done as part of a public/private partnership, and it is likely that like Internet 1, Internet 2 will be expanded first across the high-density fibers connecting nodes (or possibly augmenting these nodes with a second network, then work its way out from there.
Along these same lines, it is likely that more money will be poured into the establishment of either 802.16e (WiMax) or alternative broadband alternatives networks in order to kickstart municipal Internet access. Currently, many of these efforts are languishing because of opposition from existing broadband providers or because of the cost of setting up appropriate infrastructures. While it is unlikely that Obama will advocate direct funding for these networks, he may very well be predisposed again to creating consensus agreements with private companies in order to build what is increasingly seen as a necessary public infrastructure, in much the same way that the telephone and electrical grids built during the 1920s and 30s, or the Interstate grids of 1950s represented either direct investment in or the creation of quasi-public companies for these networks.
Indeed, one intriguing possibility that may be worth some study is whether the much needed upgrade of the electrical system in this country (something that is also a plank in his platform) could not be done in conjunction with an Internet build-out. The Internet grid itself, while important, makes little sense if there is no significant attempt made to insure that the power system necessary to keep it running is also there.
This points out the interconnected nature of the problems at hand. It is, in general, far easier to establish a new network of any sort when there's nothing there already, an observation that holds as true for energy distribution systems and highways as it does Internet routers and switches. The interconnected energy, information and physical grids form a formidable Gordian knot, and slicing through it, even to provide something better, may prove to be a challenge beyond his means.
A similar Gordian knot, though one likely more amenable to unraveling, is the thorny problems of transparency. It is fairly trite to say that both governments and business should be more transparent, but drilling down into what exactly that means leads to some difficult questions.
At the governmental level, beyond the appointment of a CTO, the definition served up by Obama as a candidate laid out the following:
- Make Government Data Available. The Bush administration has become notorious for its secretive nature, including the mothballing of government information sites in any potentially sensitive area - environmental information, energy, employment, state of the economy and so forth. Much of this will need to be resuscitated, and likely move beyond web sites into news and data feeds of various sorts. One goal is to turn at least the outward facing portion of the government into a giant, highly accessible web services infrastructure.
- Tap Into Crowd-sourcing. The Clinton administration was the first to move feedback of government actions online, so that people could provide commentary about new initiatives before they were implemented. Obama plans to take that one step further by establishing a solutions environment where people can interact (possibly via Wikis or similar mechanism) to both suggest and help implement ways of improving government at a grassroots level.
- YouTube the Government. While Congress has held floor sessions and hearings online for some time, the workings of the administrative branch have long been far more opaque. One proposal Obama has made was that he would open up departmental hearings in a manner similar to what currently exists for CSPAN, though this would be done in conjunction with Internet video and cross communication channels.
- Search Engine for Grants and Patents. An intriguing initiative as well would be the creation of a search engine that would make available both grant announcements and grant recipients, giving a much better idea about where tax money is being spent and making it easier to get a suitably diverse selection of candidates for new projects. A similar effort would be done for patents, in order to make it easier not only to search existing patents in order to determine liability or suitability of new patent requests.
- Blog the Government. An Obama administration would enforce the concept that department heads should regularly blog what is happening within their particular domain, and should periodically set up "town-hall" audio or video conferences that would both let people see what they are doing and would keep the department heads from losing sight of the people they are working for. This will, not coincidentally, start to loosen the main stream media's grip on information dissemination about the govrnment - and the interpretation of this information by analysts and political commentators.
- Include Technologists. Technologists are, by their very nature, problem solvers, but all too often in both government and business technologists are brought in only after the decisions have been made and are commanded to implement them, rather than being a part of the decision and development process that would steer people towards a more technologically feasible solution. The Obama government will push to insure that oversight boards and the like contain more technologists at the earliest stages of the development process, and that they have the authority to help make these decisions.
Within this discussion of transparency, one point in particular stands out:
[Restore] the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials.
Transparency by its very nature requires that the decisions of the goverment make sense because they reflect the best possible solution to a problem, not the solution that most readily reflects the best-interests or ideology of the decision maker. This is a profound shift in philosophy from the Bush doctrine of choosing ideologists for key political positions because they most closely represent his own. One consequence of this is that government will become noisier and more contentious, but the final decisions will at least be informed by intelligent discussion.
House Cleaning and Record Keeping
There is an underlying theme in all of these proposals - they reflect an awareness that the first key to transparency is opening up the channels of communication. The last eight years focused on closing these channels - consolidation have left news and entertainment in the hands of five media conglomerates, have left wireless access in the hands of three conglomerates, have left cable access in the hands of four conglomerates and so forth. Each of these have not been afraid of advancing partisan viewpoints through their various stations and channels.
It's very likely that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will get a thorough house cleaning, and that either the Fairness Doctrine or some 21st century equivalent to it will be reinstituted as a guiding principle for the FCC's operations. This will likely include scaling back the percentage of ownership that any one organization can control in a given media, reducing the degree to which foreign interests can purchase US media assets, and insure that discourse becomes more equitable to alternative viewpoints, something that is just as important a check on a Democratic administration as it is on a Republican one. In many respects, Net Neutrality is another incarnation of the Fairness Doctrine, which in essence states that ultimately communication channels are a public, rather than private, resource, and as such should be used to disseminate a spectrum of diverse viewpoints, rather than just a single focused one.
A similar effort will likely be underway with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), an effort which also illustrates the Obama Technology Doctrine in general. Obama, a centrist Democrat, has specifically stated that he doesn't see creating new regulation as necessary. The regulations already exist, and for the most part worked well until they ceased to be enforced over the course of the last several years. While part of this was deliberate obstructionism, a larger part was the fact that enforcement generally required the creation of an extensive paper trail that was simultaneously onerous on businesses (especially smaller ones) and was difficult for the government to audit.
By making both the regulatory process electronic and by encouraging the use of electronic mechanisms for business/government communication, the Obama adminstration would have a strong lever for reinstituting necessary oversight on business while at the same time keeping comparative workloads from this oversight as low as possible. This doesn't solve the corruption problem altogether - it is possible to still be deceitful with electronic records - but such electronic records can generally be stored more efficiently and can be processed more effectively - includingly noting trends and patterns that indicate that duplicity may be involved.
This philosophy is also extending to documents such as medical records. Obama would like to move the Veteran's Administration to all electronic medical records quickly, and would likely create incentives for other hospitals and clinics to similarly move their records into electronic form. Educational records will likely go much the same way, though this is likely to be a later priority.
These initiatives offer opportunities to IT professionals. The creation of an electronic record infrastructure is a non-trivial one, especially when dealing with sensitive information, and a key challenge in building this system is doing it in such a way that it neither invades individual privacy (or patient/doctor or lawyer/client privilege) nor becomes a commercial database that can be used for marketing purposes. In some respects this is an ideal role for the government, as most commercial ventures involving medical records fail on the basis of such privacy and proprietary concerns, not the technologies themselves.
Investing in Math and Science
Investment in new energy technologies is a given - it was clear even in the debates that both candidates at the time saw a need to explore weaning the US off of foreign oil without adding significant environment stressors at home (such as water supply usage, which can be very affected by the mode of energy use). Discussion of Obama's energy policy is fodder for its own article, however, and won't be covered in any significant detail here.
Educational reform is also likely to be high on Obama's to-do list. The Bush doctrine on education was largely punitive - punish the worst schools (based upon standardized tests) while rewarding the best - a policy which favored investing heavily in schools with strong local tax bases (and hence higher incomes) at the expense of those in poorer neighborhoods.
As seems typical of Obama's position, however, this strategy (and the rather questionably named No Child Left Behind act) will likely not just be turned on its head but the underlying assumptions will be significantly revisited. Certainly, money for math and science education will be increased dramatically (as will scientific research in general), and it is likely that electronic learning systems and distance education systems will be invested in heavily as well.
It's possible that this could herald an even more dramatic shift in educational policy toward a more localized, distributed model in which schools are networked not only internally but within and between school districts, possibly even across state lines. Initiatives similar to One Laptop Per Child program (which has a noble goal but has attracted very little government support to date) will likely be used to make electronic access portable and ubiquitous, and with it, a number of more traditional concepts in teaching, such as the notion of the physical classroom itself, may end up disappearing in favor of home- or learning-center- augmented networks.
This is an administration that will prove friendly to open source initiatives and agile development methodologies, as these also offer a cost competitive solution to providing these educational services in a meaningful fashion. Moreover, such a system provides ways of harnessing the technical skills of programmers that aren't otherwise employed, either through encouraging the creation of startups or through grant related development efforts.
The final planks of Obama's technology platform involve investing heavily into research oriented areas to attempt to regain much of the technological edge that the US held in the Clinton years but that has fallen off dramatically during the Bush administration. In a way the current fiscal crisis may very well prove useful to Obama in this regard. He can use fiscal relief programs for beleaguered industries as a wedge to force these industries to shift into more efficient or more sophisticated technologies - requiring automakers to shift a certain amount of their development efforts to creation of fuel cell or hybrid technologies while providing tax breaks and incentives to startups that are more agile and able to bring technologies to market faster, as one instance.
Similarly, biotechnology research in the last eight years has heavily favored established pharmaceutical companies at the expense of small biotech startups, and has, moreover, injected political ideology into not only barring certain forms of research but into underfunding biotechnology research in general. This has had the effect of causing a brain flight of biotech researchers to England, Japan, Korea and other countries much more amenable to such research. While in certain cases (such as stem-cell research) this challenge has led to a better understanding how to turn ordinary cells into stem cells and back, this was a largely accidental process; in the main, biotechnology research has suffered badly in the last decade. This will certainly change in the next four years.
The Obama administration will re-examine the use of H1-B visas, likely raising the requirements necessary to grant one. Among these considerations will be the availability of skilled local workers, with the implicit understanding that with the Internet, such skilled workers can be drawn from a far broader pool of prospective US developers. Similarly, research and development tax credits will be beefed up, but only upon preferential hiring of American workers. The goal here is simple - rebuild America's technological infrastructure and industry, then use this in turn to establish a new manufacturing paradigm more appropriate to the twenty first century than the late nineteenth.
Ask Not ...
While the economy will likely be seriously depressed for a while, the next few years should prove to be one filled with opportunities for those working in technology, engineering, alternative energy or science. It's worth remembering that one of the goals of John F. Kennedy's push to get a man to the moon was to build and harness America's technological work force.
Free market proponents often question what the value programs such as NASA provide. In terms of specific technologies that had immediate application back home, there were comparatively few real benefits. However, the effects that this program had on the shape of American technological development in general has been huge, as it became the catalyst for people going into engineering, computer sciences, mathematics and related fields.
Prior to his re-election in 2004, Bush tried to push an initiative to go to Mars. This didn't resonate in anywhere the same way, because the world had changed in the interim. The needs of today's society are much closer to home - securing our energy and water futures, building the noosphere, dealing with climate change, using the tools we've created in order to provide us with a better handle on the problem, using collective development efforts to solve problems that are bigger than any one person.
It will be a challenge. The financial crisis is going to force us to think about using our intellect rather than money to solve our problems - although ironically enough this is usually a critical first step toward reaching solutions. Money typically serves only to defer effective resolution of many problems, especially those that don't necessarily have an immediate profit attached to them (which most problems, by their very nature, don't).
At the same time, one of the major roles of a President is to set the stage and determine the priorities of the nation. Obama has run an effective campaign by harnessing the power of multichannel communication and collective action, and it is likely that this same philosophy will imbue his political style as he moves into the Oval Office. Once this philosophy hits the world of entrenched political partisanship (and the Democrats in majority control of both houses have a history of becoming a victim to internal partisanship) the mettle of Obama as a leader will likely be fairly heavily tested, but it will certainly be instructive to see whether an open source president can in fact lead us into the twenty-first century.