President Obama and technology

It’s no secret that I’m a Mac geek, at least not to any of my readers, family, or friends.

Neither is it a secret at my job that I’m a Mac geek, mainly because, although the university where I’m faculty is perfectly fine with Macs, the cancer center where my laboratory, clinic, and office are housed is not. Indeed, one might even say it goes beyond that in that it borders on being Mac-hostile. Oh, the IT department doesn’t actually forbid Macs (although until a recent change in organization it was clear to me that they would clearly very much like to do so), but, until the recent hire of one woman who actually uses and likes Macs, it didn’t really support them (although it did and does deign to let us hook them up to the network and Internet). Moreover, even now, its personnel still seem to make every lame excuse imaginable to try to forestall faculty or staff getting a Mac. I sometimes think the only reason they permitted a Mac to be purchased for me was that I managed somehow to slip through the door when I first arrived as new faculty, for whom they were (temporarily) willing to bend over backwards to make happy. Since then, I’ve observed one person who’s been there a while trying to get a new Mac Pro to do some fairly heavy duty genomics calculations go through unbelievable numbers of contortions trying to get IT to actually purchase and deliver what he needed, even though he had plenty of funding for it and its lack slowed down his output enormously. It makes me wonder what will happen when the time comes for me to need to replace the Macs I now use. I’m no longer new faculty.

What about Linux? I hear Greg (and others) saying. Forget it. If Macs are tolerated among a few, Linux boxes are pretty much completely verboten. This same person wanted to set up a Linux-based server, and he might as well have been asking to set up an underground lair from which to launch spy operations on the entire state.

None of this is because the IT folks at our place are bad people or incompetent (one possible exception with whom I dealt is possible), but rather because of the way IT seems to operate. IT training and culture seems to inculcate budding young new IT people with two things: a knowledge of Windows and the perceived need to be in control. Macs and Linux boxes don’t fit in to either characteristic. Both at my current institution and the one where I started my career fresh out of training, Windows boxes were set up with users completely unable to install software–or even software updates. No administrator privileges for you, dude. Indeed, at my previous institution, the IT head even tried to control what was put on Macs by requiring that all software purchased with institutional funds be delivered to him, that only an IT person could install it, and that IT keep the discs. When I bought Adobe Photoshop for my lab, IT installed it. Later, I found that IT had installed it on another computer on the network. When I tried to fire up my copy of Photoshop, I got an error message saying that another copy of the software was in use on the network, and my copy of Photoshop shut down. I was not pleased and raised more than a little hell about it.

Moreover, IT departments tend to be unrelentingly cautious and conservative. To some extent, I can understand why, given that it’s a huge deal to upgrade hundreds of computers when a major new software update comes out, and dealing with the headaches such headaches bring can be expensive and time-consuming, especially when many IT departments are understaffed. However, such conservatism has lead our institution to have computers running Windows XP (not necessarily that bad in an of itself, given the problems with Vista), with Office 2003 and using for its mail servers Exchange 2003. That’s right, we’re using six year old software for almost, not just Microsoft Products.

This sounds, oddly enough, better than what the Obama Administration faced its first day on the job in the White House:

If the Obama campaign represented a sleek, new iPhone kind of future, the first day of the Obama administration looked more like the rotary-dial past.

Two years after launching the most technologically savvy presidential campaign in history, Obama officials ran smack into the constraints of the federal bureaucracy yesterday, encountering a jumble of disconnected phone lines, old computer software, and security regulations forbidding outside e-mail accounts.

What does that mean in 21st-century terms? No Facebook to communicate with supporters. No outside e-mail log-ins. No instant messaging. Hard adjustments for a staff that helped sweep Obama to power through, among other things, relentless online social networking.

“It is kind of like going from an Xbox to an Atari,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton said of his new digs.

And:

One member of the White House new-media team came to work on Tuesday, right after the swearing-in ceremony, only to discover that it was impossible to know which programs could be updated, or even which computers could be used for which purposes. The team members, accustomed to working on Macintoshes, found computers outfitted with six-year-old versions of Microsoft software. Laptops were scarce, assigned to only a few people in the West Wing. The team was left struggling to put closed captions on online videos.

Senior advisers chafed at the new arrangements, which severely limit mobility — partly by tradition but also for security reasons and to ensure that all official work is preserved under the Presidential Records Act.

And how did they get around not being to use their own personal e-mail accounts? Gmail.

I understand that the Presidency is different in that the Presidential Records Act mandates saving pretty much everything, a system has clearly evolved that is, like most IT systems, paranoid and unrelentingly conservative (not politically conservative, cautious conservative). Add to that government regulations and an elephantine government bureaucracy, and seeing computers and software that sound about on par (or even more lame) than the standard ones we have at our own cancer center.

Of course, President Obama is our first truly plugged-in, tech-savvy, new media President, and his staff is similarly computer-literate and, more importantly, completely plugged in. It’s been widely reported how much he loves his BlackBerry and his MacBook Pro, so much so that efforts are being made to accommodate his desire to keep using a BlackBerry, and it would not surprise me to see a MacBook Pro sitting on the desk of the Oval Office at some point. Heck, a President who actually surfs the Internet might actually be less prone to fall into the echo-chamber full of yes men that the White House can so easily turn into. We can always hope, anyway.

As much as I’d like to see the federal government be brought into the 21st century with regards to technology, I don’t expect it to happen fast or without resistance. Inertia, government regulations, and the need for control will be powerful roadblocks. It will not be like this rather overblown prediction by Jimmy James Bettencourt:

The dumb part was his answer to the question “What will the Obama Team Do?”

The answer was, unbelievably unless you realize that this young man was Yet Another IT Drone Fuckwad, “Oh, well, the Obama team will simply have to adapt.”
Hmmm…… well. Let’s see.

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT

I do not think so. No. I think the Obama Team, the S.V. Startup, The Wired, will not adapt. They have been operating from the Community Organizing base, took the reigns of power. No, no, they Took The Reigns of Power. Of the entire country. And they show up for work the first day and discover that the power center is sitting there deeply ensconced in the mid 20th century.

No. They will not adapt. They will insist on change. They will make change. And they will lead the way in a national, nay, GLOBAL revolution of Those Who Are Trying to Function against The IT Agents.

This is the beginning of the end of the tyranny of the ignorance, the tyranny of the slovenly agent, the tyranny of fear of technology. Universities and businesses will fire their IT managers, convert their servers into anchors for the row boat, and get Google accounts. Windows upgrade paths will be circumvented. The True Cost of Computing will be realized … memory chips, baby, memory chips. Give me any decent processor, upgrade the memory, install Linux, get a Google account, and you need very little more. The vast majority of the “services” provided by IT departments will be obviated, and their asinine self-interested bad decisions will no longer get in the way because they won’t exist.

Uh, no. Whatever it is Bettencourt’s smoking, I want some. It isn’t going to be that easy.

Even if Obama is reelected to a second term and makes upgrading the computer infrastructure of the federal government a top priority for his eight years in office, this rather–shall we say?–optimistic vision is highly unlikely to be realized even in the federal government. I’m not saying that the Obama team will not change this aspect of the federal government, but the federal government will also in turn change the Obama team. Both will adapt and eventually a new equilibrium, hopefully a significantly less technologically primitive equilibrium, will be struck. Some significant change will occur, but it will not be anything on the order of this nice, but unrealistic vision. More likely, the White House will be an incubator of innovation in applying the new media and technology to governing, but out in the trenches, where until after 9/11 even the FBI had crappy computers that couldn’t even talk to each other, it will be many years before any of this filters down, even in part.

The federal government is huge and very slow to change. Trying to change its direction is like trying to turn the proverbial battleship. Presidents come and Presidents go, but the bureaucracy is eternal, as many Presidents have discovered.

Perhaps my institution will be instructive. I once asked someone in the know why we still use nearly six year old software, why we don’t use at least Office 2007, why we still use Exchange Server 2003, in other words, why our computers are stuck five or six years in the past. It’s not for a lack of desire to upgrade, but a number of factors, of which the IT culture is but one. We have old server equipment, with no money budgeted to replacement, for one thing, but perhaps the most important impediment was something that never occurred to me. Apparently the electronic medical record software used by the entire medical complex is not compatible yet with Vista or Office 2007, and patient care depends upon that. Of course, that means there’s no reason IT couldn’t routinely install Office 2007 on computers used by research personnel who don’t have any clinical responsibilities and don’t need access to the EMR, but then that would produce a two-tiered system and I can see why IT wouldn’t want to do that. Consequently, until the EMR software is upgraded, it’s unlikely that our cancer center’s operating systems and software will be upgraded.

The tech-savvy of President Obama and his new administration is a good thing. It think he will indeed be an agent of change in terms of how the government uses technology to communicate and get things done. However, there are long-standing reasons for why many government agencies, including the White House, are so far behind the curve, some institutional, some legal, some bureaucratic, and some cultural. History cannot be so easily overcome, and these factors are not going to change just because the occupant of the White House has changed. If these impediments to technology in the government can be significantly changed and improved in four or even eight years, it will be a major accomplishment. But don’t expect such an accomplishment to lead to any sort of global revolution that will overthrow IT departments. That’s a huge stretch.

Still, there could be a minor revolution. My own institution, which used to resist vigorously letting anyone access the Exchange Server with an iPhone, now permits it. Why? Our Director and CEO got an iPhone. Now several people have informed me that they are getting iPhones, too.

Change comes, but it is slow.