So Obama wants a CTO for the United States. The job description:
Obama will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.
So that’s a reasonably traditional, large company definition of CTO. It’s like a CIO on steroids. It’s very different than a startup CTO, where a lot of my experience lies, and I’m not sure if it’s what the US needs. There are a couple of larger jobs which may need doing. Scoping broader and broader:
Information Technology policy leadership for the government. I think there are three key issues for US technology policy right now, and they’re scattered across organizations:
- Innovation and rewards. As the economy moves from atoms to bits, how do we reward people who create new things? When copying costs approach zero, how do we reward people for creating? (This is often called intellectual property.)
- Access to networks, including simple access and what ISPs may or may not do. Broadband access in the US, even in large cities, is far slower than in other countries, and far more expensive per megabyte/second. These are results of government policy and we should do better.
- Privacy and security. I suspect most readers of this blog don’t need a primer here.
Technology Policy leadership need not be constrained to information technology. There is a tremendous amount going on in clean energy, in nanotechnology, in biotechnology including genomics, protonomics and pharma. Some of the issues that an information technology policy CTO would need to take on impact on these industries.
The trick, of course, is finding someone who can handle a job this large. Many names that have been floated would be great at one of these things. Very few people could take on all of them.
But there’s one person who’s been put forward who I think has disqualified himself. Before I get into the details, I want to be clear, I have huge respect for his early technical achievements. As someone who cut their teeth on BSD Unix, I was tremendously influenced by Bill Joy’s work. So it’s hard for me to opppose John Doerr’s suggestion, except his most famous work recently is “Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” I believe that Joy raised great concerns, but his ways of addressing them, I think, raise real questions of should we have him as CTO of the United States.
Joy hasn’t shown an ability to get people excited about an obscure topic like copyright in the way that Lessig has. He hasn’t shown a talent for explaining complex issues simply the way Schneier has. I don’t think he’s qualified for the CIO-on-steroids job, nor for any of the CTO jobs.
On the other hand, there are other founders of Sun Microsystems who have shown an interest in politics, innovation and liberty, who I think would be great. I have huge respect for his intellect, his morals and his integrity. I’m speaking, of course, of John Gilmore, who helped found Sun, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and was a major force behind Cygnus. So why not fly him out for an interview?
Regardless of who we pick, I think the key for that role is to embrace the value of innovation, and to create a level playing field which encourages the chaos of invention and a willingness to believe that given a chance, good solutions will emerge.