Congress Being Stupid on Technology is a Bigger Problem than You Think
Jan 10, 2012 Clay Johnson

The SOPA/PIPA bills in the United States Congress have the Internet's elites in an uproar that hasn't been seen online since the 1996 Communications Decency Act protests. The difference is that in 1996 there wasn't nearly as much money at stake in regulating the Internet. So now, Congress is taking it seriously but they don't understand the Internet, and as I noted a few weeks ago, the Internet doesn't understand Congress either. While it's a problem for this piece of legislation, it's a much bigger problem than you think.

Part of the problem with government not understanding technology is a lack of paid advocates that lobby on the technology industry's behalf as compared to other, more entrenched interests. But the larger problem is that government doesn't have enough access to the technology that it is supposed to regulate. I first began to learn this when I met with former federal CIO Vivek Kundra in 2009. This is a picture of the model of the computer on his desk at the time:

Vivek's Original Computer

I remember giving him a hard time. I asked him why, as Federal CIO, he couldn't just get any computer he wanted, and he said that he was trying to, but that the White House had security and procurement policies in place that would take some time.

When he was Washington, DC's CTO he had some of the most advanced technology available to him -- a Microsoft Surface table collected dust in his office, and every corner of his office seemed to be covered in some kind of LCD Screen giving him updates on every IT project the his department was responsible for. But in this office, he had a 19 inch Gateway all-in-one and a cardboard sign hanging up in front of his desk with a bar chart of the month's Federal IT expenditures above it. While the job was a step-up, the tools available for him to be able to do his job (as Federal CIO, mind you -- the guy in charge of technology projects for the federal government) were a step in the other direction.

Then I started noticing: every person working in technology in the federal government has two computers on their desk. One of them is used to display a screensaver with some official looking logo on it. It's usually the 2006 Gateway all-in-one unit pictured above. That's the one the government put on the desk when they got to work one day. The other one is usually a macbook or macbook pro from about 2009 or 2010. It's the one that the worker brought from home that they do most of their work on. And after some investigation, I started figuring out why: it's because of government's messed up policies of acquisitions that makes it so that most expensive purchases involve a complicated, limited competition RFP process that takes around 18 months to complete.

I think this "two computer problem" is a symptom of a much larger issue. For those of you that are unfamiliar with Moore's law, it's general principal is that technology gets twice as good every 18 months. So if it takes government about 18 months to do anything expensive (by expensive I mean: something that costs more than a few thousand dollars) with technology, we've built in that government must be at least one cycle behind the private sector when it comes to Moore's law. Compounding this is the sunk-cost fallacy: In order to stay just one cycle behind the rest of society, government would have to begin the purchasing process again as soon as new computers hit desks. But they won't do that, because "you just got a new computer!"

Thus, a great gap has built up, not just with the pace of work, but in the access to technology. But the thing that makes this frightening is that Moore's law isn't linear, it's exponential. With every cycle of Moore's law, the difference between two points on the curve doubles. Being one cycle behind the curve 18 months from now is twice as bad as it is today.

Today that problem is symbolized with two computers on every desk -- the officious screensaver machine, and the Macbook used to get the job done. But tomorrow what does that gap look like? Society is now seeing the impacts of Moore's Law first-hand, and technology is seeping into everything -- it's taking out the phone-booth, the newspaper, and is about to take out the post office -- and society is becoming increasingly reliant on, and exposed to the advancements of Moore's law. If you think that SOPA is bad, wait until we start talking about self-driving automobiles and our regulators can't get to the technology it's supposed to regulate? Or, if you want to get hyperbolic: How can government catch a self-driving getaway car making decisions at 200 miles per hour at a fraction of a second, if the police car is a 2010 Chevy Impala driven by a human?

Or what if government gets so detached from technology that it starts making horribly bad technology decisions like spending 2 Billion Dollars on a court-case management system? Or 18 Million Dollars on Recovery.gov?

This is what happens when we focus on dumb arguments in Washington: in particular, the false choice of "Big Government" vs. "Small Government." When we talk about federal spending, we do it in a zero-sum way: "they're going to cut medicare and kill seniors" or "they want to pay poor people to have babies." But if think critically about the big v. small debate, you understand that it's stupid: I'm 6'2" and larger than average, but that has little to do with my intelligence or my ability to do my job. I don't get any better at it by cutting off my legs to be "smaller."

The debate should change and we should change it. I wish we were having debates instead about what the proper role of government was, how we could make sure our tax dollars that we're spending could have the most impact on social policy, and how we could equip bureaucracy with the people, process, and technology to be as efficient and as service oriented as possible.

We're in charge of that, too. Whether it be through or votes at the polls, or through what we choose to tune into in our information diets our clicks and eyeballs constantly tell the media what to cover. If we choose to stop participating in that debate, and to stop tuning in to the media providers that empower it, the market will follow us.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson