As election day approaches, it's worth noting that technology policy has gotten next to no attention by either presidential candidate. During all the stump speeches and debates, neither man has made technology a part of his campaign promises.
It's been there indirectly in at least in some of the campaign pledges. President Barack Obama says he'll continue high investment in alternative sources of energy, for example. And he has declared a goal of recruiting and preparing 100,000 new math and science teachers. Governor Mitt Romney talks about innovation driving the US economy and criticizes China for alleged intellectual property theft.
The relative silence on technology is amazing, given the fact that it plays a role now, and will in the future, in most of the issues that have dominated this campaign. For example:
- Education. Everyone knows our K-12 schools are not working so well. Technology is changing the nature of learning, however, and tech companies are full of new ideas and innovations that could improve education.
- Infrastructure. Old roads and bridges can not only be repaired and rebuilt, but retrofitted with sensors that can help monitor structural integrity. Federal systems like air traffic control could be modernized. And the broadband network in the United States is disgraceful; US broadband penetration ranks well below that of South Korea and several Nordic countries. (Obama's Federal Communications Chairman is trying to implement a National Broadband Plan, but so far with only limited success.) That's an issue that has a direct bearing on the competitiveness of this country in the world economy.
- Taxes. Regardless of whether they go up, the whole system of collecting revenue could use a major overhaul. For example, is there really a good reason for citizens to do their own taxes? I've heard suggestions that the government could simply ask for your information in an online form and calculate your taxes. If Congress does try to reform the tax code, technology could play a big role.
- Jobs. Technology is causing a major structural change in the job market. The old, industrial 9-5 job with healthcare and pension is nearly gone, yet no one on the campaign trail has dared to say it. At the same time, Silicon Valley is a hotbed of job creation. With all the talk by both candidates about creating jobs, it's striking that neither talks much about the tech industry.
The lack of focus on technology during this election cycle is reflected in a certain amount of ambivalence in the tech industry. In terms of money, the tech industry clearly supports candidate Obama. Electronics and communications companies have contributed more money to Obama (almost $19 million) than Romney (about $9 million), according to the most recent figures from the Center for Responsive Politics. Both Microsoft and Google are among Obama's top five contributors. All of Romney's top five contributors are banks or finance firms of some kind.
But there's also evidence that the majority of tech executives -- like most business leaders -- lean Republican. An October survey of technology executives by DLA Piper revealed an interesting dichotomy. A strong majority -- 76 percent --said they believed that President Obama would be reelected while at the same time 64 percent said they actually thought Romney would have a more positive impact on the technology industry. (It's notable that this survey was done after the first debate, which Romney was widely perceived to have won.)
Another interesting point: Some 60 percent of the tech leaders were skeptical that a second term for Obama would have a positive impact on the technology sector. That's a switch from the 2008 election, said DLA Piper, when nearly 60 percent of tech executives believed that an Obama Administration would have a more positive impact on technology development and investment than would one led by Republican candidate Senator John McCain.
Indeed, I remember the level of excitement in 2008 over the fact that, in Obama, we'd finally have a tech-savvy president. Here was a guy that used a BlackBerry (does he use an iPhone now?) and understood the Internet. And Obama has done a fair bit to bring the federal government into the 21st Century. His administration is pushing federal agencies to adopt cloud computing and implement data analytics, for example, while also encouraging them to make more government data available to the public via the Internet.
But a discussion of technology policy, and how technology can help our country, is strangely absent from this campaign. Don't the candidates consider it important? Or do they just believe technology issues are too complex to boil down to a 30-second ad or a campaign speech for the masses? Let's hope it's the latter and that whoever ends up in the White House realizes tech's potential to solve some of our most pressing problems.