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The White House CTO – Web 2.0 need not apply

Job Opening

The Chief Technology Officer of the United States of America.

Damn that’s a pretty heady title to have hanging around your neck. To be the person responsible of dragging the U.S. government kicking and screaming into the real technology present; and prepared for an ever changing technological future, is a hellva job description to try and fill. This is exactly the position that is going to be up for grabs under an Obama administration and is getting a lot of press from within the tech blogosphere.

When this idea of a White House CTO first started making waves through the tech blogosphere we heard names like Lessig to Winer being proposed to fill the position. Now we hear that Eric Scmidt of Google has stated he wouldn’t be interested in the position if offered it (bullshit) and so the guessing carries on. As interesting as this discussion might be it is all centered around the singular idea that whoever fills the job should be a thinker from the Web 2.0 social networking social media world of the web.

WRONG, wrong, wrong.

This is so many ways from wrong it isn’t even funny but the attitude is a perfect example of the inflated sense of importance that permeates that part of the web. For them everything is about social media and all that other related warm and fuzzy stuff – for them the tech world gravitates around them and their philosophies. Sorry guys but it doesn’t and anyone that thinks so is as narrow minded as the anti-CTO people.

The fact is that the U.S. is losing its place as a leader in the technology fields and it will need a concentrated effort from both government and business to even make it back to the top of the pile let alone take the lead for innovation and excellence. However limiting the filling of what could be one of the more important positions in any White House; now and the road ahead, to someone who might be a shining star in social media but across the broader tech field is a bit player is being extremely short sighted.

Technology isn’t just the Internet and as important as that is it is only a small portion of what a CTO would have to be concerned with. Technology is everything from the hardware to the software to the connectivity (and sharing) of all kinds. It isn’t just limited to making sure everyone in the government has a frikken Facebook page or uses Twitter or writes a blog. For a CTO it is the very infrastructure that all of the government; and citizens, will be using.

Does it work right?

Is it on par with other competing countries around the world?

Does everyone have equal access?

Looking beyond our myopic look at the Internet being the cure for all our ills we need to understand that a CTO cannot; and should not, be solely about that one thing. Dan Farber has a great post today on the subject and provides us with a great list of some of the things that will be a part of any White House CTO’s purview

  • Protect the Openness of the Internet
  • Encourage Diversity in Media Ownership
  • Protect Our Children While Preserving the First Amendment
  • Safeguard our Right to Privacy
  • Open Up Government to its Citizens
  • Bring Government into the 21st Century
  • Deploy Next-Generation Broadband
  • Promote American Businesses Abroad
  • Invest in the Sciences
  • Invest in University-Based Research
  • Make the R&D Tax Credit Permanent
  • Ensure Competitive Markets
  • Protect American Intellectual Property Abroad
  • Protect American Intellectual Property at Home
  • Reform the Patent System
  • Restore Scientific Integrity to the White House
  • Make Math and Science Education a National Priority
  • Improve and Prioritize Science Assessments
  • Address the Dropout Crisis
  • Pinpoint College Aid for Math and Science Students
  • Increase Science and Math Graduates
  • Lower Health Care Costs by Investing in Electronic Information Technology Systems
  • Invest in Climate-Friendly Energy Development and Deployment
  • Modernize Public Safety Networks
  • Advance the Biomedical Research Field
  • Advance Stem Cell Research

In the overall view of that list we can see that the Internet is only a part of what needs to be dealt with. As such any person filling that position has to have a broader view of technology than just what the proponents of Web 2.0 and social media would like us to believe. That doesn’t mean that the Internet isn’t important and that it is in dire need of some serious attention but the web is bigger than Web 2.0 or social media regardless of how self-important proponents of the movement like to think. The fact is that the web and its underlying infrastructure in North America; and the U.S. in particular, is in sad shape when compared to the rest of the world.

Alan Patrick from Broadstuff points this out in a post today as well

Work we are doing in understanding the evolution of the Internet implies that one of the biggest drivers of competitiveness going forward will be top class digital logistics. It was ever thus – first class comms have been the hallmarks of great societies from the first Sumerian runners (the SandalNet) onwards.

However, the buildout of the huge pipes in Asia seems to be missing most Western commentators on the Arts Technical except for the odd remembrance. To recap, Korea has built out a very high speed internet system via a combination of government, corporate and consumer collaboration.

Why is this?

Well it boils down to two things in my opinion. The first is a total lack of strong governmental direction and support. I don’t propose that the government take over the whole Internet infrastructure but I do believe that they can strongly suggest to the industries involved that it would be in their best interests to work together and improve what we have. It can do this in many ways that doesn’t require taking ownership. Like Doc Searls says

Regardless of what we do, we must liberate the Net (including the carriers) from telecom reguation. It’s too new, too different, and too important to be shackled by the boat-anchors of the 1934 and 1996 telecom acts — and by addenda to those acts, even if they are meant to improve existing law on behalf of the Net.

Liberating the web from the telecoms doesn’t necessitate taking over the pipes but it does mean that whoever the CTO ends up being they have to have the bite to go along with their bark. We can’t be just instituting another toothless watchdog branch of the government like we have in the past.

This is a job that is far more important than promoting the cause of Web 2.0 and social media. Sure there is no denying that those things are a part of it all but really they are only a small part of a much larger picture – a much larger need. Whoever is tapped to take the position as America’s tech CTO needs to be someone who has a deep understanding of technology as a whole not just a small part of it. They will need to understand how all the different parts of technology need to be brought together in order to return the U.S. to the technological powerhouse it once was.

Equally so business will need to be made to understand that this is something that is more important than the short term shareholder profits. For too long now the technology sector in the U.S. has been treated like a pig trough for everyone to gouge their unsustanable greed out of. In the end it is the people and the country that has paid the price. This is also something that the White House CTO is going to have to deal with and it won’t be happening on some Facebook page or some intern managed blog.

I have no idea who the Obama Administration will be looking to to take on this job but I sure hope that they don’t just rely on the potifications coming out of the tech blogosphere in making their choice.

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Comments

2 Responses to “The White House CTO – Web 2.0 need not apply”

  1. Ari Herzog

    I agree with your overall concept that the CTO should not be someone limited to the web sphere, but (and this is a BIG BUT), the selected person must be someone who understands the web. And I don't mean a typical CEO who equates social media with Facebook. If the CTO is providing direction, the CTO must be able to listen to the population – taxpayers, voters, citizens – and be able to engage with the population through the web and other means. How many CEOs routinely share information about their products vs merely pushing it out?

    Yes, we need to build out hardware and software innovation, but by listening to what the population is saying, the best strategies will be implemented. If the innovators are not venturing out of their cubicles to hear what end users want, what's the point in designing anything?

  2. jedsundwall

    I have yet to meet a CTO trained in caring about people and their needs—that's for the product team to worry about. Because of that, I don't envision a social media guru being a good fit for the big job. That said, Ari's right on that whoever wins the prize (punishment?) needs to really understand the web, which for most constituents is the social web. Terms like web 2.0 and social media are quickly becoming redundant.

    So yes, it's important that the CTO understand this, but it's not going to be his or her job to deal with it. That's what community managers are for!