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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Joe Biden, and the Country, Could Really Use a CTO

Hi, everyone. CNN+ has gone to the graveyard. I got a head start writing the postmortem—when it first launched. Now we’ll never see them embrace TikTok.

The Plain View

One of the US government’s best innovations so far this century was establishing a chief technology officer. Since Barack Obama created the post, you would expect that his former VP Joe Biden would want to choose his own CTO early into his presidency. Doing so would provide Americans with a strong voice and a knowledgeable leader in a period when tech’s issues—in AI, education, jobs, privacy, and disinformation—are more critical than ever.

But nope. Nearly a year and half into the Biden administration, we have no CTO. The office is empty.

In recent months, the administration has tried to catch up on some key White House tech roles after what seemed like a deep slumber. We now have Mina Hsiang, who was part of the healthcare.gov rescue team, leading the United States Digital Service, which is kind of the Navy Seals of software development. And late last year the administration appointed two deputy CTOs: Alexander Macgillivray (aka AMac), the principal deputy, is former counsel and free-speecher for Google and Twitter and served as a deputy CTO in the Obama years; Denice Ross, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow who later worked on census issues for nonprofits, was named the chief data scientist. Both are great choices—but they are deputies to an empty chair.

That’s a shame, because the short history of the federal CTO shows that the position is more than justified. In 2009, inaugural CTO Aneesh Chopra figured out the duties of the role. His successor, Todd Park, was a relentless talent recruiter who organized the USDS and helped save healthcare.gov. Megan Smith, who took the helm in 2014, was an MIT grad and ace engineer who went on to fill big roles at Planet Out, the legendary startup General Magic, and then Google. At OSTP, she made it a point to urge more women to pursue STEM careers. So in addition to making our government more tech-savvy, a great CTO can inspire. Even Trump, wary of all tech over 260 characters, eventually appointed a CTO, Michael Kratsios, a Peter Thiel acolyte who focused on policy advisory and AI.

Now there’s no point person for any of those issues, despite the fact that this administration has another good reason for installing a strong CTO as soon as possible. So far Biden’s splashiest tech-related appointments have been people like Lina Khan at the FTC, Jonathan Kanter in the Justice Department, and Tim Wu as a special assistant. They’re all inspired selections, but they are antitrust crusaders who kind of hate Big Tech, which for all its monopolistic misbehavior is a vital part of our economy and lifestyle. A CTO with deep technical knowledge and a familiarity with the Silicon Valley ecosystem might be able to balance the conversation so that the baby doesn’t go out with the regulatory bathwater.

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So why has the Biden administration failed to fill the role so far? I spoke to a number of insiders about this. (None wanted to to be quoted—it’s Washington, DC, Jake.) They all cited one obstacle in particular: the Biden administration’s guidelines about owning stakes in companies. Ethics standards make perfect sense as a way to avoid conflicts, but the CTO candidate pool is loaded with people who have amassed equity in these companies from working in tech or investing in startups. For many of them, divesting isn’t as simple as just selling off stock, especially if the shares or options they own are in illiquid companies. Giving up those holdings might mean losing them outright. Worse, these restrictions apply to spouses as well. Multiple sources told me that the CTO job was offered to DJ Patil, who was Obama’s chief data scientist and a member of the Biden transition team, but under the financial restrictions, he couldn’t make it work. (Patil declined to confirm or deny.) I also heard that feelers went out to at least four other candidates, who had similar problems.

There are some other disincentives. The CTO post is part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Last year, Biden appointed Eric Lander as its director, a controversial pick because of charges of insensitivity toward women colleagues. (A group named 500 Women Scientists wrote an editorial in Scientific American opposing the nomination.) And for the first time, the director of OSTP and presidential science advisor, Lander, was given cabinet status. Personally, I’d argue that we should also grant cabinet status to the CTO.

In February, Lander resigned because he was bullying women in his new role. He’s been temporarily replaced by two people: The former head of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins, is acting as science advisor, and social scientist Alondra Nelson, who was already serving as deputy director for science and society at OSTP, will now perform the director’s duties until a permanent replacement is chosen. Nelson, whose work has been in social equity, is supposedly the person in the organization who raises the OSTP tech team’s concerns to the president. That’s important, and her work has indeed involved sophisticated analysis of science and tech. But the president should also be hearing directly from someone with the technical orientation that a CTO brings to the job. When Smith served as CTO, she spoke endlessly about the value of having someone with an engineering mindset at the table when policy issues were decided. (The scholar danah boyd has cleverly argued that instead of a CTO, the US should have a VP of engineering—I think that a technically adept CTO is just as good.) I imagine that all this meshugas might raise a question in a CTO candidate’s mind: How much influence will Biden give to his top tech person?

Another factor possibly discouraging prospective CTOs is that the post requires Senate confirmation. Who can get excited at the prospect of facing a deranged interrogation from the likes of Ted Cruz and Marsha Blackburn?

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All of this might explain why it’s been hard to fill the role. But after almost 500 days, hard is not an excuse. The Biden administration has simply not made it enough of a priority. A president’s term is only four years, and the final one is muddied by an election, so there’s no sense in waiting for the perfect candidate to emerge. Surely there is one fantastic candidate who isn’t constrained by a stock portfolio or some startup options.

Ideally, that would be a brilliant geek with political savvy who can lead our nation in tech policy, provide wisdom in addressing serious issues like privacy and disinformation, and get little kids excited about solving problems. Someone who can apply an engineering mentality to basically everything that hits the president’s desk. So many of the government’s decisions hinge on tech knowledge—a years-long vacancy is intolerable.

Come on, Joe, give us our CTO. We need one.

Time Travel

In August 2014, I wrote about Barack Obama’s chief technology officer, Todd Park, and his effort to help create the United States Digital Service.

Todd Park knows the problem is systemic—a mindset that locks federal IT into obsolete practices. “A lot of people in government are, like, suspended in amber,” he said to the crowd at Mozilla. In the rest of the tech world, nimbleness, speed, risk-taking, and relentless testing are second nature, essential to surviving in a competitive landscape that works to the benefit of consumers. But the federal government’s IT mentality is still rooted in caution, as if the digital transformation that has changed our lives is to be regarded with the utmost suspicion. It favors security over experimentation and adherence to bureaucratic procedure over agile problem-solving. That has led to an inherently sclerotic and corruptible system that doesn’t just hamper innovation, it leaves government IT permanently lagging, unable to perform even the most basic functions we expect. 

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So it’s not at all surprising that the government has been unable to attract the world-class engineers who might be able to fix this mess, a fact that helps perpetuate a cycle of substandard services and poorly performing agencies that seems to confirm the canard that anything produced by government is prima facie lousy. “If we don’t get this right,” says Tom Freedman, coauthor of Future of Failure, a 61-page study on the subject for the Ford Foundation, “the future of governing effectively is in real question.”

No one believes this more deeply than Park, a Harvard-educated son of Korean immigrants. In 2012, President Obama named him CTO of the entire US. Last fall, Park’s stress levels increased dramatically when he caught the hot-potato task of rebooting the disastrously dysfunctional HealthCare.gov website. But he was also given special emergency dispensation to ignore all the usual government IT procedures and strictures, permission that he used to pull together a so-called Ad Hoc team of Silicon Valley talent. 

The team ultimately rebooted the site and in the process provided a potential blueprint for reform. What if Park could duplicate this tech surge, creating similar squads of Silicon Valley types, parachuting them into bureaucracies to fix pressing tech problems? Could they actually clear the way for a golden era of gov-tech, where transformative apps were as likely to come from DC as they were from San Francisco or Mountain View, and people loved to use federal services as much as Googling and buying products on Amazon?

Ask Me One Thing

Nima asks, “How much time has the world been on social media so far? What is the total time stolen from the public through addictive user retention strategies?”

Wow, Nima, that’s a tough question. Are you sure this isn’t part of a hiring interview for Google? According to a research firm called Statistica, internet users worldwide spend 147 minutes a day—more than two hours—on social media, a fairly consistent rate since 2018. That’s just short of 900 hours a year. Longer than the Get Back documentary! Multiply that by 4 billion users, and we are talking about 3.5 trillion hours. (Can someone check my math? My skills have been eroded by too much time on TikTok.)

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Of course if you total up all those hours over the years, you are stacking up trillions. But before you go crazy while pondering this, consider that even more time—well over three hours a day—is spent watching television, a more passive and numbing experience, especially if it involves “The Masked Singer.” Older people spend 50 hours a week watching TV and are probably more likely to include Tucker Carlson on their schedule, which is kind of like social media toxicity without the keyboard.

It’s hard to declare definitively that those hours are “stolen.” People do have the ability to turn off their screens. Still, both television and social media employ all sorts of tricks to make you keep watching. Just as with physically addictive habits like smoking, or deep-seated compulsions like gambling, there are entire industries devoted to exploiting human weakness and keeping those screens going. When retention levels go down at Meta, workers lose bonuses and the stock price dives.

It’s worth asking what we would do if social media went away. Where would we spend that sudden bounty of free time? Personally, I’d set out to finally crack open the novel The Man Without Qualities, which has been staring at me from my shelf since I purchased the multi-volume epic in a boxed set two decades ago. But who am I kidding. I’d probably rewatch The Sopranos and play FIFA 22 Soccer.

You can submit questions to mail@wired.com. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.

End Times Chronicle

Russia’s new missile can deliver 10 nukes and “will provide food for thought for those who, in the heat of frenzied aggressive rhetoric, try to threaten our country,” says Putin. Sorry, not hungry.

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