Do We Really Need a National CTO?

Robert Scoble has become a cheerleader for Barack Obama’s concept of a national Chief Technology Officer. Though he claims that both Republicans and Democrats have asked for a CTO position to be created for the Whitehouse. Senator McCain has revealed his technology plan for America, and so far I haven’t found a part where he calls for a CTO yet.

I’ll leave it for our always colorful commenters to speculate as to why that is, but as for the idea of a CTO four our nation, I’m here to say that I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea it should exist at all.

“But Mark!” you exclaim. “You’re a tech evangelist! You’re a hacker! Most of all, you’re a geek! How can you possibly say this? You know more than any how badly our government mangles all the laws when it comes to technology. We need this.”

The truth is that I see a Chief Technology Officer for America as just another way to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt amongst the populace.  I’ll get into the specifics in just a minute, but let’s take a minute to define exactly what a CTO does. I’ll wait, while you go Google it.

Found a definitive answer yet?  I’m guessing not, since there isn’t one.

The Wikipedia, surprisingly, does have an amusing anecdote about the CTO title involving Bill Gates and his CTO. Bill and Nathan Myhrvold sat down and tried to come up a definition. Myhrvold answered, when asked:

Hell if I know. You know, when Bill [Gates] and I were discussing my taking this job, at one point he said, ‘Okay, what are the great examples of successful CTOs?’ After about five minutes we decided that, well, there must be some, but we didn’t have on the tip of our tongues exactly who was a great CTO, because many of the people who actually were great CTOs didn’t have that title, and at least some of the people who have that title arguably aren’t great at it. My job at Microsoft is to worry about technology in the future. If you want to have a great future you have to start thinking about it in the present, because when the future’s here you won’t have the time.

So we’re starting out with a nebulous position, and we’re putting it in charge of interpreting the nations’ technology issues, and hoping that the government won’t abuse the advice to expand their own power and use it to drum up votes.

Let’s Take a Trip Down Memory Lane
What has the Drug Czar done for America?  It’s another nebulous position that’s been around off and on since 1982, and has been a position largely reserved for alternatively drug scandals and public service messages.  Aside from eliminating government unions, the Department of Homeland Security has a visible director that ostensibly advises the president on what’s going on with the security of our infrastructure, and what color our terror alert is.

The office of FEMA was established on April Fool’s day 1979 by President Carter, and since then has just done a bang up job of performing the duties of assisting American citizens in times of great crisis.  I remember after Hurricane Wilma several years ago, FEMA was supposedly dispatched to provide disaster relief to the millions of South Floridians without electricity, running water, food or fuel. I spent about two weeks wandering around trying to get things together and never once ran into one of these mythical creatures. I hear they weren’t too helpful in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, either.

These are all organizations that supposedly have some pretty clear responsibilities, and their mandates are in their titles. If the richest technologist on the planet, Bill Gates, can’t define what a CTO is, does that bode well for the position in our government?

The CTO thing is a Really Popular Idea
I had the conversation last night with a couple of folks privately regarding their thoughts on the office of a national CTO. Given that I polled folks electronically, it isn’t surprising that most of them were for the idea.  One person, though, was staunchly against it.

“National CTO? RUN AWAY,” he said. “Run away as fast as you can. I can imagine the headlines now: ‘America’s CTO today issued a statement about the Russo-Georgian Cyberwar’ or American CTO warning - cell phones may cause brain cancer.”

Quite honestly, I think we’re better off with our government in the dark over this stuff. I think it’s worked to our advantage so far, anyway. Sure, once in a while one of our own takes one for the team. Kevin Mitnick, Napster, and occasionally Microsoft (depending on how much money the DOJ wants to write a check for that year). All in all, we come out ahead.

If we have a CTO advising the president, the congress and any other part of government that’s listening, we’ll end up with a government with a little bit of knowlege, which hopefully you’ll remember is a dangerous thing.

We’ll never have a President or a majority in Congress that uses Twitter, understands the inside jokes of 4chan, has installed Linux at least once in their life, or has coded so much as an HTML tag. It just won’t happen.  We might have an informed and savvy CTO telling them what’s going on in our world, but it’ll only give them more terminology for them to use incorrectly and demonstrate to us how out of touch they are.

And the Best We Can Come Up With is Dave Winer?
Do you think we’ll see the end of exploitation of Craigslist as a political punching bag anytime theirs a prostitution bust with a CTO?  Do you think we’ll see an end to Attorney Generals using pedophilia online as a way to scare the public and major corporations into playing ball?

No, of course not, they’ll just have more advanced terminology to play with.  Semantic web technology will be used to scare the electorate into outlawing the technology so we won’t have a Will Smith I, Robot situation on our hands. Better understanding of how trojans and worms are spread will only encourage congress to pass a law requiring mandatory keyloggers on every citizen’s computer.

If they get really altruistic and industrious, they might just get interested in protecting our privacy.  Of course, to them that’ll mean that every blogger will be required to obtain a license to operate a webserver so they can regulate how data is collected - data handling procedures that will tell you how you treat personal data entered in comments, cookies left by your ads, and disclosure of your sources.

I’m sorry if I’m sounding out of step with the crowd here, but I’d much rather have my government not worry their pretty little head about technology, if you please.  If the government gets too crazy in their technology laws, we’ll call our congressmen if there’s a problem.

In other words, Obama, don’t call us - we’ll call you.

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