Intelligence failure

by Andy Oram

Everyone will have his opinion about the election, which is officially
undecided but looks like it will reinforce the status quo--not only in
the White House but in Congress. While thousands of opinions will be
aired over the coming weeks about the economy, the war, and that odd
grab-bag of emotional responses that pollsters identified as "moral
values," it is legitimate here to ask how the election will affect
technological innovation.



I am afraid that the status quo will have a profoundly negative effect
on innovation. This is not an issue of issues. It's an issue of
attitude.



The current administration is marked by two key traits: rigidity and
the suppression of information flow. Both of these herald trouble for
technology. The "intelligence failure" that led to a false basis for
the war against Iraq is a model for the multiple intelligence failures
that are likely to come up again and again. And these won't be limited
to what the regime in Washington does; they will affect the larger
society.



Civil society thrives on information and debate. To promote change,
people need knowledge. Such knowledge may concern statistics about the
race of people stopped by police. It may concern notification of where
hazardous materials are stored. It may simply concern urban planning.



But all these things are being suppressed by a government that is also
busy cutting down the sharing of key intelligence information with
Congress, that is kicking technical experts off of advisory committees
on ideological grounds, that is refusing to comply with the Freedom of
Information Act, and that is suppressing the flow of information in a
hundred other subtle ways. The information is simply removed from
public fora and denied to people requesting it.



Hardly ever does this trend get reported in the mainstream
media--another intelligence failure.



During the election, the candidates had little to say about technology
and even less to say about their differences. And these aren't
superficially that much, aside from the area of embryonic stem cell
research--where benefits are speculative and far off--and possible
investments in sustainable energy.



The Bush record is modestly positive in the area of technology: he
announced money for hydrogen fuel cell research, raising many
eyebrows, and has made vague references to promoting broadband
networking, which has played out in a small way in FCC regulatory
changes.



But innovation is fundamentally neither law nor policy. Innovation is
a willingness to explore new things fearlessly. And recent innovations
in computing and the Internet illustrate the social aspect of
technological change.



The World Wide Web got over the hump of initial adoption through
amateurs experimenting with all sorts of strange uses, including the
installation of cameras in private apartments and the spouting of
unconventional political propaganda. Wifi was first the province of
idealistic community activists with the doctrine that any kind of
connectivity was good, no matter who used it for what. Gaming pushes
forward the boundaries of multimedia support and real-time computing,
even though it risks addictive behavior and often involves imagery
that doesn't appeal to the squeamish.



All these important technological innovations are more than
technology. They're examples of social change aided by technology.



America is famous for tolerating fringe activities such as these. But
we are suffering from a creeping intolerance of new ideas. Fear will
suppress experimentation. The risk of looking strange and attracting
negative attention--as one artist did, when he was arrested because
his art materials looked to investigators like terrorist
materials--will spread throughout the arts, throughout political
discourse, and ultimately throughout science.



These areas, when they are flourishing, all support one another. When
dampened down, they inhibit one another. This is what we can learn
from such social/technological innovations as the Web, Wifi, and
gaming.



The closeness of the election shows that many among the U.S. citizenry
are opposed to the current trend, or at least to certain specific
policies. But the vote for Bush was an intelligence failure on a
massive scale. I'm not using "intelligence" here in the sense of who's
smart; it's a matter of knowing what you're doing. People said they
wanted a strong leader or one who they invested with that odd phrase
of the pollsters, moral values. They didn't even realize that they
were voting for things that most U.S. citizens say they oppose:
further degradation of the environment, further suppression of civil
liberties, further ripping away of the safety net for people unable to
pay for basic needs.



When one examines the issues with a magnifying glass--what Kerry would
do in the war, what he would do to save jobs, etc.--the differences
between the candidates are not that big. But I think there's a
profound difference in attitude. Assuming the results end up putting
Bush back in the saddle, we are left with fewer and fewer options:
with leaders who know who to destroy countries but not how to develop
them, with energy specialists who can respond to oil shortages only by
drilling for a few drops more, with an approach to science and
technology that must placate religious fanaticism above all.



Perhaps the vital forces still thriving in American society will buck
the trend and continue to provide technological leadership. Or perhaps
the world will benefit from some other region of the world picking up
the torch. But we are severely hampered by the bonds we scarcely see.