On The Horizon: Offer Tech Vision, Not Campaign Rhetoric

Neither Bush nor Kerry has offered any new ideas on technology.
In an effort to win the South and lift a perceived veil of pessimism, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry chose as his running mate an optimist, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. In an article that David Post and I wrote a year ago ("Let's Talk Jump-Starts, Not Caution," July 7, 2003), we said Edwards was the only candidate embracing the technology community with a forward-looking, uplifting message and that he was the only candidate who seemed to get it when it came to technology.

Before appointing Edwards, Kerry unveiled a technology plan. "At the dawn of the 21st century," he said, "the possibilities are limitless. But they won't just happen. We have to invest more in our people and in their ideas. And America must lead, not follow, other countries in the great discoveries that bring greater prosperity."

There actually isn't a lot that's new in the plan, and Kerry will finance its $30 billion cost by selling unused spectrum for analog television while "accelerating the transition to digital television." Perhaps Kerry should surf through 900 or so digital channels and he might figure out what's wrong with digital: There's no content. Computerlike television with bold, interactive content hasn't happened.

He also discusses broadband, as does President Bush, funding basic research, building a high-tech workforce, and "improving the quality of life by creating an Information Society--a concept that already exists in Europe."

What Kerry doesn't discuss is that there are two basic constituencies interested in federal R&D. Scientists in federal labs, government-owned contractor-operated labs, and universities who rely on the government for billions of dollars to conduct basic research--so-called "pre-competitive, generic technology"--form the first group. The second is companies that take the basic research and use it to create a host of products across a range of industries. These two constituencies have strong lobbies and different interests.

At the beginning of this Bush administration, there were novel discussions about creating a bold, new approach to federal technology by splitting the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House into an entity that could channel the views of scientists and also those of business. The science community pushed back on that idea, and, at the time, there wasn't much interest in rocking the boat, so the status quo was maintained. As a result, the position of the science adviser remains weak, as it has since the Kennedy administration. Making a proposed change there, presenting a serious agenda, and showing leadership would have been a bold stroke for either camp.

Bush recently revealed "Innovators for Bush-Cheney," a group of CEOs, including Michael Dell, John Chambers, and Meg Whitman, who back Bush. Said Chambers, "I believe that George Bush is creating an environment in which optimism, even during tough times, defines the American spirit." Said Dell, "At a time when freedom and fulfillment are within the reach of so many, we need discipline, strength of character, and optimism. ..." Nothing new here, either.

Nothing Bush or Kerry has said about technology is particularly visionary in light of the specific issues tech companies face in a global economy. It's all campaign gobbledygook. What really would be refreshing is something novel--a bold, new idea.

Bradford C. Brown is chairman of the National Center for Technology and Law at the George Mason University School of Law. Reach him at [email protected]. (Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the George Mason University School of Law.)

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