Today Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States, during a scary economic meltdown and at a time when America questions its role in the world and its self-perception as a champion for good and progress. Among his many agenda items as president is one for technology. His incoming administration has signaled that it sees technology both as an enabler of the change it seeks for the U.S. and as a worthwhile investment in its own right.
The Obama administration's focus, at least publicly, has been on whether and how to extend the reach of Internet access via national broadband and net neutrality policies. That set of issues certainly should be on the national high-tech agenda, but Obama needs to take a wider view, as well as be wary of the high-tech industry's self-interests, many of which will not further the national interest. Here are my personal recommendations, based on 25 years' involvement in the tech industry as an observer, journalist, and occasional advocate.
Don't let the high-tech industry lead
In economics and foreign policy, there are competing schools of thoughts that marshal think tanks, academics, activists, and business leaders to argue over and propose policy. The high-tech industry does not do this except in a very simplistic way. That fact is the biggest danger Obama faces in formulating and executing a high-tech agenda.
The tech industry is largely a libertarian one, which encourages creativity and respects differences among people but is perfectly happy with abusive monopolies, socio-economic imbalance, and profiteering. Its worst impulses are borne of meritocracy gone awry: The smartest succeed, and everyone else accepts what the meritocracy decides. Politically, this has kept Silicon Valley, Route 128, and other high-tech centers focused on keeping government out of the way so they can pursue economic and technology domination unfettered. Companies like Apple, AT&T, Comcast, Oracle, Microsoft, Sun, and Verizon are genuinely puzzled when people object to using their success in technology areas to lock out competitors and lock in customers to an ever-widening area of their own products. In the extreme version of this worldview, government is bad and/or incompetent, and customers are cattle.
But the high-tech industry also has a neo-socialist component, which distrusts both government and business. The positive aspect of this ideology engendered the open source movement and provided some balance to the techno-meritocracy in areas such as privacy and information access. But its extreme also promotes dubious ideas such as making software and Internet access free for all that are simply unworkable in the real world.