SOTU Technology Messages

The president’s final SOTU included some interesting remarks about technology. Some were encouraging and aspirational, the thing he does best. These included touts for programs to teach young people to code, getting schools and libraries online, bringing manufacturing into the information age, and reducing barriers to startups:

But tonight, I want to go easy on the traditional list of proposals for the year ahead. Don’t worry, I’ve got plenty, from helping students learn to write computer code to personalizing medical treatments for patients…We’ve…taken bold new steps to get more students and low-income Americans online. We’ve launched next-generation manufacturing hubs, and online tools that give an entrepreneur everything he or she needs to start a business in a single day.

This is all good stuff that nearly all Americans can get behind regardless of party affiliation or ideological condition; perfect stuff for inclusion in an SOTU.

The SOTU Wasn’t Free of Puffery

But there was one SOTU comment that drew the attention of policy wonks, in the ellipsis in the portion I quoted above. The full remark is: “We’ve protected an open internet.” Now it’s certainly the case that the FCC passed regulations designed to protect an open Internet, but the problem is with the president taking the credit. The FCC is supposed to be an independent, expert agency rather than an arm of the Administration. FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly commented on the contradiction:

Maybe this was just puffery, the president basking in the reflected glory of his appointee’s good work rather than a claim to being the FCC’s puppet master. It’s hard to say, but it was an odd claim given the concern among members of Congress that the White House pulled strings to make the agency reverse course late in the game not once but twice. The move from 706 authority and a commercially reasonable standard of behavior to Title II and a “fair and reasonable” one was the first reversal, and liberating interconnection from Title II (at the behest of Google, according to Commissioner Clyburn) was the second. So this is a sensitive area that would have been better left out of the SOTU.

Teaching Kids to Code

The SOTU tout for teaching kids to code is laudable. When my kids were in elementary school in Cupertino, I took it upon myself to teach 5th and 6th graders how to write code in the Logo programming language on the Apple IIs that were abundant in the school due to its proximity to Apple World Headquarters. Logo uses something called Turtle Graphics that makes it easy for kids to visualize how code makes things happen in a computer and it’s very intuitive. One team created a program that calculated baseball statistics, which forced them to learn some math, and another team led by one of the girls wrote an elaborate program that had something to do with bridges. The leader went to study engineering at Cal Tech, so she obviously had talent.

Learning programming is like learning foreign languages and algebra, best started when the brain is young and flexible. Given our increasing dependency on computers and software, coding is a basic mode of literacy, like speaking Spanish in the culture with a significant Hispanic population.

Connecting More People to the Internet

Pew Research

Pew Research on Internet Connection Modes

The SOTU tout for connecting the poor to the Internet was a little less encouraging. This is not because poor people shouldn’t use the Internet – the US isn’t India so we don’t take pride in raising barriers to the advancement of the poor and downtrodden – but because the Administration hasn’t caught up with the people in the mobile revolution. The latest Pew report shows low income people abandoning wired Internet connections in favor of wireless ones: Wired broadband is down from 70% to 67% and mobile-only is up from 8% to 13%. But the Administration has little enthusiasm for anything but wires. It would be wise for future presidents and FCC chair persons to take a more balanced view of broadband networks.

The rural broadband measurements who showed in the last post indicate that mobile outperforms wired broadband in very rural areas, so the future baseline for Internet use is mobile first. Wired still has value as a cost saving measure, but 5G will all but completely eliminate any meaningful performance advantage for wired connections.

Now that unlimited data plans are coming back, the price differential is shrinking so the rationale for paying for both wired and wireless Internet access is declining. Wired connection speeds are increasing from tens of megabits per second to hundreds, but above 15 Mbps that increase fails to produce dramatic benefits even if it helps with marketing.

The Big SOTU Message

Aside from these rather small and wonky SOTU messages about this program and that, the President’s large message was that America is a nation in which people embrace change, progress, and the future. He laid this on pretty thick:

America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the “dogmas of the quiet past.” Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America’s promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before.

The future, of course, is sponsored by and brought to us by technology. The message that we must be prepared to release our grip on the dogmas of the quiet past is oddly dissonant with the things the FCC has been doing, of course. Title II is, more than anything, one such dogma.

The president went on to say that we need to “make technology work for us, and not against us ” in connection with climate change. This is true, but we need to allow technology to work for is in all other spheres as well: health, education, entertainment, transportation, food production, and infrastructure. There are challenges in all these areas, as there are in networking, but promoting creative freedom to innovate in every sphere would seem to be paramount.

So let’s hope that the next SOTU we hear is more consistent with the positive side of this one.