Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Word of Caution on Bill Joy as National CTO...

Throughout the presidential campaign, Barack Obama repeated his promise to create a "National CTO", or Chief Technology Officer, for the country if elected. He does appear intent on keeping that promise, and gossip has been swirling all week over who might fill the position.

The name being thrown around the most is Bill Joy. Wired Magazine once described him as the following:

There are geeks and then there's Bill Joy - 49-year-old software god, hero programmer, cofounder of Sun Microsystems and, until he quit in September [2003], its chief scientist. Beginning in 1976, he spent zillions of hours in front of a keyboard, coding the now-ubiquitous Berkeley strain of the Unix operating system; then he godfathered Sun's Java programming language and helped design servers that were the Internet's heaviest artillery.

Joy's hero-status among programmers is mainly what's propelling him to the front of the CTO list. However, overzealous netizens should perhaps exercise just a bit of caution.

In April 2000, Bill Joy published an article titled, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" - describing how 21st century technologies are "threatening to make humans an endangered species". With a striking note of paranoia about soon-to-come sentient robots, it was, as Wired called it, "a Cassandra cry about the perils of 21st-century technology and a striking display of ambivalence from a premier technologist".

Netizens tend to be more optimistic about the role that technology and the internet will play in our nation's future - in economic, cultural, and also political terms. Bill Joy, through his own pen, has demonstrated that, while being a technological wiz-kid and hero, he might not share that same enthusiasm, strange as it may seem.

What the new National CTO will need to do is take a policy approach to technological development. Figuring out how to graduate more scientists and engineers from our universities, using federal funding efficiently while still pursuing true scientific research, and expanding the H1-B visa program to bring in top foreign talent to meet the growing demand of high-tech positions at American firms are all the types of issues that the CTO ought to address.

This is not to say that Bill Joy would necessarily be a bad fit for the position either. It is just to remind everyone that the skills that will be required for the post are not suited to his previous strengths, and so we might all be better off in the long-run by simply toning down this initial euphoria and enthusiasm for a man whose expertise is clearly more technology-oriented than policy-oriented. In fact, Joy might prove to be a more valuable asset if he were on the team of the future CTO than if he were the CTO himself. Let's keep the playing field open for a while longer and see who else emerges.


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