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Now For Something Completely Different: Cringely For U.S. Chief Technology Officer

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By Robert X. Cringely

The Pulpit Poll

Would Bob make a good CTO for the USA?


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President-Elect Barack Obama has announced that when he's in office he'll appoint a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for the whole darned USA. Though Google CEO Eric Schmidt already said he isn't interested in the job, I am.

I accept, Mr. President.

And while the idea of Cringely for CTO may seem lame to most everybody I know (including my Mom), I think I can make a strong case for why I am EXACTLY the right guy for the job.

For one thing, unlike Eric Schmidt I don't have a lot of money. Schmidt can't afford to take the job because Google stock is down and he'd lose a fortune. Not so for me. I come encumbered only with debts, which is to say I am a true American. I'd be perfectly willing to put those debts in a blind trust ASAP.

The U.S. CTO would have to be a dynamic leader capable of speaking his or her mind and holding his or her own against a tide of critics and special interests. Hey, that's what I do every week (sometimes twice)! Maintaining and defending technology opinions is my only business and some people think I do it too well, which I take as a compliment.

Now we need to consider why President-Elect Obama thinks the country needs a CTO in the first place. The President has long had a Science Adviser, so why appoint a CTO? It's the distinction between adviser and officer that I'd say is the whole point; one simply advises while the other implements and leads directly. And I think there is plenty of room for new leadership in this area.

America has always been tops in science, tops in research and development, tops in medicine, tops in industrial development, tops in technical infrastructure -- tops, tops, tops. But are we tops today? I don't think so, and I'd say we've been slipping steadily for the last eight years and probably for many years before that. The rest of the world has caught up and some other countries now lead the U.S. in many respects. Yes, we have technical traditions and deep institutions, but those traditions are weaker than they were and the institutions are, too. I think something can be done about that.

My belief that something CAN be done is critical, because most of the usual suspects for this job probably think it can't. The reason I am so optimistic is because of the very financial disaster that is the current U.S. economy. Things are so bad right now that I am greatly encouraged.


Sometime in February the new Obama Administration is likely to propose the mother of all economic stimulus packages. It won't be a $650 check that comes in the mail. It won't be a $700 billion equity injection in various financial institutions. It WILL be a public spending plan modeled after the New Deal of the 1930s, injecting $600+ billion primarily into infrastructure construction and reconstruction. The difference between this New New Deal and the first one is that while plenty of roads and bridges will be rebuilt, a lot of the money this time will probably go into information infrastructure. Well that's my bag.

The U.S. CTO - at least this FIRST U.S. CTO - will be the buyer-of-cool-stuff-in-chief for the entire nation.

I would make a better buyer-in-chief than almost anyone else because of two important characteristics in my warped personality: 1) I would be immune to special interest groups so this wouldn't turn into another National Information Infrastructure boondoggle, and; 2) yet as a true enthusiast I would buy with such reckless abandon that I'd easily fulfill the economic stimulus needs while spewing money widely enough to guarantee at least a few good technical investments for the nation.

This latter point probably requires some explanation. As we can see from the current $700 billion bank bailout, the ranks of those actually benefitting are pretty small. We're $325 billion into the thing and consumers - the people paying for it -- have yet to benefit at all as far as I can tell. Most banks haven't even benefitted. And those that have benefitted have done little to share their wealth. To put things in the most positive light I can, let's attribute this to the very surgical nature of this process. To put it more honestly, nothing really changes except the rich get richer.

Look at Al Gore's National Information Infrastructure program of the 1990s, which was intended to build for us all exactly the sort of data network enjoyed today by people in Japan and Korea. $200 billion in tax credits were distributed, primarily to telephone companies. That's $200 billion in government revenue foregone, which is just the same, it seems to me, as writing a check. And what did we get for it? Limited Internet service in schools and no Internet service in homes. The DSL we have today we paid for, believe me - phone companies sell that stuff at a profit. However well intentioned Al was, his system was gamed by the phone companies who took the money and ran.

That can't happen again.

If we are going to have a huge economic stimulus package that we'll pay-off as a people over the next 30+ years, I say we should get something for it. If we hire as CTO some slick-talker from IBM or GE this won't happen. If we hire Bill Joy it won't happen, either. Bill's too smart and too gentle and too darned rich for the job.

We need someone with just enough savvy to know good technology, enough independence to make the right decisions, and crazy enough to do it all 24/7 right out in public so that vaunted "transparency" we keep talking about yet never see can be proved to be more than just a modern myth.

I'm the man for that job.

AND I can use the work.

That's because December 15th will mark my last column for PBS.

After 11 years and more than 600 columns I'll be moving-on, perhaps into that big CTO job in Washington, but then maybe not. This is my decision, not that of PBS, which has been nothing but good to me these many years.

In the month I have left I will be filing many columns, trying in a breathless rush to put a cap on this part of my career and leave behind a few ideas of how things should be and where they can go if done right. Though it will be a couple weeks early, the last column will be my predictions for 2009.

Stick around until then. I'm right most of the time, you know.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [OPEN] read all comments (139) | add a comment

Hi Bob,

Wow. I missed this column and I am completely stunned. I have been reading your column since 1999 and it seems as if an era is coming to a close. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Knowing you, they will be a lot of fun, interesting and maybe just a tad bit crazy. Good luck.

Joe Latrell | Dec 01, 2008 | 8:43PM

Oh, Robert,

I'm so sorry to see your columns end.

The Gods know that excellence is rare. And treasured.

John Weiss | Dec 12, 2008 | 5:16AM

Say it ain't so! I've been a power user since 1985 and there are a lot of people who need you. The kids today, with their GUI's, they've got no idea how a computer works. I do my best to tell the old-timers stories of the days before hard drives, back when the floppy was king and CLI was the only game in town, but you do it so much better. I'm gonna miss you Cringely. I hope that whatever you do will continue to inform the people of the world of what has come before.

AndroidBoy420 | Dec 14, 2008 | 6:57AM
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