President Bush has been widely ridiculed in technology circles for talking about “the internets”. John McCain admitted he does not use e-mail and is only just learning how to get online.
And Barack Obama? Through his adept use of online tools such as social networking, he has this year rewritten the textbook on how political campaigns everywhere will be conducted.
The starkness of that contrast goes a long way to explaining the powerful sense of hope – even excitement – that has rippled through technology circles since Mr Obama’s historic election win.
The prospect of a technologically literate president who believes in the positive impact of digital information and networking, not just on political campaigns and the conduct of government but also on the economy and society at large, has induced a strong sense of expectation for his administration.
Beyond the specific technology promises made by the Obama camp – such as a commitment to spend $10bn a year for five years on new healthcare information systems – many of the broader policies of the new administration are widely expected to be tech-friendly.
Two areas, in particular, have drawn attention. One involves a commitment to wider access to a high-speed, “open” internet. Mr Obama has already pledged support for “net neutrality”, or the controversial requirement for broadband network companies to ensure that all traffic flowing across their networks is treated equally. This requirement has long had the backing of internet companies but is opposed by telecommunications and cable companies, who claim it would hamper future network investment.
A second area of focus involves building the sort of skilled workforce on which the future of the US tech industry, and others, depend. Mr Obama has pledged to boost the number of students with mathematics and science qualifications, and his use of the “bully pulpit” alone could perhaps encourage more young people to follow this path, says Phil Bond, president and chief executive of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).
This may be one of the rare areas, however, where the interests of the tech industry do not fit easily with those of the next administration. In keeping with his promise to protect American jobs, Mr Obama has so far laid the stress on improving the quality of the home-grown workforce. In the short term, though, US technology companies say that visa restrictions are starving them of the foreign engineering talent they need.
As with many of the hopes that surround the president-elect, however, there is a danger of expectations getting ahead of reality. And with the US facing a servere economic downturn, some of the tech-friendly promises made during this year’s election campaign could be in danger.
Betsy Mullins, head of government and political affairs at TechNet, an industry trade group, summed up the powerful anticipation that has been stirred up by the Obama campaign’s use of technology: “He embraced it in his campaigning. If you listen to the way he talks, he gets it.”
“For the tech industry at large, there is good reason to be optimistic,” adds Mr Bond. “They bring a mindset, and an appreciation of the power of the network and what it means to connect people, that we have never seen in an administration before.”
Most directly, the conduct of the Obama campaign has raised expectations about how the internet will be used in future to make the conduct of government more transparent and involve citizens more actively. In a position paper on technology and innovation, Mr Obama promised to “integrate citizens into the actual business of government”, a plan that includes everything from publishing government information in standard formats to inviting public comment on the White House website about pending legislation.
The technological astuteness of the election campaign has raised much broader hopes than this, though. Those are embodied most clearly in a new role that Mr Obama has promised to create for his administration: the country’s first chief technology officer.
What role a US CTO will play – and what this will do for the industry at large – is now the subject of considerable speculation.
Under the plan, as laid out by the Obama campaign, the appointee would act as a chief information officer for the federal government, making sure that “our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century”.
Many observers, however, see this as too narrow a job description, and believe that the incoming administration is already prepared to move well beyond it.
“It seems to be much more than a ‘CIO of CIOs’,” says Mr Bond of the ITAA. Instead, he suggests, Mr Obama would give a future CTO a voice in the formulation of government policy in a wide range of ways. The new top technologist would have “a seat at the table” to make sure that “major legislation and initiatives will have that tech perspective”, he added.
The presence on Mr Obama’s transition team of Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, and Anne Mulcahy, boss of Xerox, has even aroused speculation that a senior corporate figure could be appointed to the post, adding further weight to the role, says Mr Bond. Though he adds that an appointment is more likely to come from Mr Obama’s election campaign staff, with Julius Genachowski, a former executive at internet group IAC and chief counsel at the Federal Communications Commission, a leading candidate.
Others see a different role for the CTO. John Doerr, the venture capitalist who has become Silicon Valley’s leading champion of “green technology”, argued this month that the job should be used to promote investment in the sort of basic research on which long-term US competitiveness depends. This is certainly a need that the Obama campaign acknowledged, with a promise to double federal funding of basic research over the next 10 years and create a new programme of university research grants.
According to Mr Doerr, figures with heavyweight science backgrounds, such as Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and Danny Hillis, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, would be ideal for the position.
If there is one corner of the technology world where the sense of anticipation about the incoming administration is strongest, meanwhile, it is in “green technology”. Investment in everything from new solar energy technologies to the software needed to control a “smart” electricity grid has become one of the driving forces of the US venture capital industry in recent years.
Now, there are high hopes that the next administration’s commitment to stemming climate change and furthering the country’s energy independence will give the sector its next lift.
“Those people who have been betting on increased government spending on all of the alternative energy forms will do fine; that has turned out to be a good political bet,” says Mark Anderson, a US technology commentator.
Exactly how good a bet it will be is hard to judge. During the campaign, Mr Obama himself promised to spend $150bn over 10 years on “climate-friendly” technologies. But that was before the financial melt-down and the signs of a steep economic downturn that have already become apparent.
The green technology industry now finds itself poised between fear and hope.
The fear is that the US government’s dire fiscal position next year will force the Obama administration to abandon its earlier promises and cut back its support.
At a time when plunging oil and natural gas prices have already reduced the short-term cost-competitiveness of alternative energy technologies – even if this proves to be temporary – the threat of waning government backing could hit hard.
The hope, though, is that the economic slump could lead to an acceleration of government spending in this area. With the US economy suffering, greater investment in infrastructure to support a new energy industry could supply a much-needed stimulus.
Those hopes were best summed up by Al Gore, who took the stage at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco days after the election and called on Mr Obama to set a target for the US to move over fully to renewable sources of energy within 10 years.
Even without an over-arching “moon shot” approach of that sort, however, many in the technology industry believe that the economic weakness could lead the next administration to set ambitious goals. For instance, Bob Sutor, an IBM executive, told the same audience that conditions were now ripe for the creation of new public-partnerships to invest in big infrastructure projects to combat climate change.
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