Commentary
2/18/2011
08:00 AM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
Commentary

Global CIO: Bill Clinton On Technology's Promise And Problems

Warning that he doesn't know much about technology, the former president said tech's true potential lies in the service of institutions.



In just the past week, we've seen and heard some grand visions about the interplay between ourselves as humans and the technology upon which we've become increasingly dependent and to which we've become also inextricably bound.

Oracle president Mark Hurd, in a talk last week with a few hundred IT executives from the financial-services community, said that a year from now, Earth will be home to more mobile phones than people.

It's an observation that at first seems almost obvious—who, after all, doesn't have one?—until we reflect on what that means about the growing pervasiveness of technology even in underdeveloped countries.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt told the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that we are approaching a point in human-computer relations at which our gadgets will ensure that we are "not lost, never lonely, never bored."

I know—well, I think—Schmidt meant that in a comforting and reassuring way, but I must confess his comment made my skin crawl. To say that because you will never be lonely because you have a computer that can help you communicate and consume is like saying that you will never be wrong because your computer can access and analyze information.

Sorry, Eric, but if that's the cure, I'll take the disease.

Then we had IBM's dazzling Watson computer thump its human opponents in a Jeopardy match. At some point, despite all of us knowing that humans created Watson and breathed into it every single bit of its intelligence, we had to wonder: does anybody really think that any mere flesh-and-blood mortal stands a chance against this astonishing machine?

I think we have to really applaud the DNA-based life forms for doing as well as they did—no shame for them in that loss. For them, the problem was that the silicon-based thing was purpose-built to do what it did, whereas those zany humans are programmed to do all sorts of unfocused stuff like daydream and play basketball and change diapers and talk about whether those guys can beat the IBM computer at Jeopardy.

Into this marvelous mix, then, comes the news that former President Bill Clinton made a surprise appearance at a tech-oriented conference called "Wired For Change" and was given a chance to share his thoughts. (You can read the full article at FastCompany.com.)

Joshing that he's a know-nothing when it comes to technology, Clinton nevertheless held forth on the impact technology can have, and here are a few of his specific comments from that FastCompany.com article:

On IT's role in the financial crisis: "What caused the meltdown? Our financial institutions worked arguably too well, at warp speed." As a result, the article describes Clinton as saying, "people used information technology to help do fancy things with money that were disconnected with the real economy."

On IT's impact in poor countries and in rich countries: "The challenge in poor countries is institution building. The challenge in rich countries is institutional reform."

On his legacy as a presidential email power user: "I sent a grand total of two emails as president," he said, "one to our troops in the Adriatic, and one to John Glenn when he was 77 years old in outer space. I figured it was OK if Congress subpoenaed those."

Overall, I was struck by Clinton's focus on technology as a servant to institutions, whereas the overwhelming sentiment these days about technology's purpose is as a source of human or individual enrichment and engagement.

Perhaps it's a matter of people's perceptions being shaped by what they know and what they've experienced -- in that case, it's understandable that Clinton would focus more on tech in the service of big organizations rather than individuals.

As the saying goes, "May you live in interesting times." I don't think we need to consult Watson to assess whether that is currently the case for us.

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GlobalCIO Bob Evans is senior VP and director of InformationWeek's Global CIO unit.

To find out more about Bob Evans, please visit his page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO,
or write to Bob at [email protected].

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