Lawmakers lack knowlege of technology issues


In the past couple of weeks, ZDNet has picked up two related stories (Google CEO: Techies must educate governments, 10/17/06; Chris Patten: Politicians have no grasp of technology, 10/27/06) regarding government leaders’ lack of education regarding modern science and technology. Upon reading both of them, I joked that someone needs to call Ric Romero and let him know about this “breaking news.” I was shocked — shocked, I say — to discover that the people making important decisions regarding our technological future often have no idea as to what they’re even voting on.

As a courtesy to those who haven’t quite developed a text sarcasm detector, I’ll state outright that none none of this comes as any surprise to me. For the past year, I’ve been working in one capacity or another as a technology policy analyst, and I’ve worked rather closely with several lawmakers charged with the responsibility of making primary policy decisions regarding science and technology. To the credit of some, especially regarding their ages, there are legislators who will not only admit to not knowing much about the issues upon which they are making decisions but are willing to learn about them.

Unfortunately, these people are the exception rather than the rule in our lawmaking bodies. More often than not, legislators and politicians know nothing about these issues and have no desire to learn. When it comes to the vote, they, at best, abstain; or, at worst, make their decision based on what their friends or party is voting — a decision that is also often made in ignorance.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was spot-on when he referred to the generation gap that exists regarding technology. “The average person in government is not of the age of people who are using all this stuff,” he said at a National Academies’ Computer Science and Telecommunications Board symposium.

As a result, we get legislators like Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) making misinformed statements like the now-infamous “The internet is made up of tubes,” declaration he made regarding the issue of network neutrality. This man is the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation! Sen. Stevens isn’t the only offender, for certain, but he is one of the most high-profile examples.

This unfortunate phenomenon isn’t just limited to U.S. lawmakers. Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten relates similar issues and attitudes in the E.U., particularly relating to the issue of identification. The issue of identification is becoming increasingly fraught with technological issues as many nations are moving toward RFID standards in passports and driving permits — standards which have been shown to be insecure and vulnerable to tampering. “The NHS program for IT and the ID cards scheme both stand as a testament to the government’s complete failure at forward planning [in technology schemes], and its inability to understand technology in the real world,” said Simon Davies, chairman of No2ID, a non-partisan campaign opposed to the national ID and identity register in the U.K.

This real-world understanding is where technology policy analysts like me come in. “The challenge is to develop a language politicians can understand, as well as politicians taking the time and trouble to understand it. What often happens is you get somebody speaking technical jargon to someone who doesn’t understand the basics,” said¬† Richard Allan, head of government affairs for Cisco Systems U.K.

And that is precisely what we do. When I tell people that I’m a technology policy analyst, they always wonder what I really do. Pretty much, I serve as a Technobabble – Political Bullshit translator.¬† My colleagues and I take complex, technical subjects such as cryptography and cellulosic ethanol (just to name a couple), and break them down into simple terms that (hopefully) even my kid brother could understand.

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