Magazine | January 26, 2015, Issue

The Floppy-Disk Technocracy

Last August the White House announced a new initiative to improve the federal government’s technological infrastructure. You might think this means upgrading all the high-tech computer rooms with 4K monitors and solid-state EMP-hardened storage. More likely, an “upgrade” means sending someone out with a damp cloth to wipe the dirt off the Morse signal lamps. Maybe a drop of 3-in-1 oil on the telegraph key.

Let’s go to the press release. It begins with an inspirational quotation from Our President: “I want us to ask ourselves every day, how are we using technology to make a real difference in people’s lives.”

Every day. How many federal employees have been whistling on their way out the door, looking forward to an easy commute and a nice supper, and stopped dead because they hadn’t asked themselves that question today? I’ll ask myself on the way home, the employee thinks. During a commercial on the radio. But there aren’t any commercials on NPR, the conscience says. This is how it starts, you know. Ignore the president’s wise request, and the next thing you know you’re taking ballpoint pens home “by accident.” So he goes back upstairs and turns on the computer and thinks: How can I use this computer to make a real difference in people’s lives?

He goes to a friend’s Facebook page and finds a picture of her Cuban vacation and clicks “Like.” There. That should count.

Of course, making “a real difference in people’s lives,” according to some in the government, could be defined as using NSA data to find out whether leaders of conservative 501(c) groups ever shared an elevator ride and discussed politics, which would suggest coordination. Jail ’em! That’ll make a difference in their lives.

Back to the press release:

Late last year, a team of digital and technology experts helped to turn-around HealthCare.gov.

Wow: Digital experts and technology experts? Imagine the day in the foreseeable future when one could be both. Imagine the day when the government hires them in the first place instead of dumping a billion dollars into Bob’s Donuts ’n’ Code.

Today, building on the same proven strategic approach that ultimately enabled millions of Americans to sign up for health insurance, the Administration is launching the U.S. Digital Service.

This is like building on the same strategy that eventually encased Chernobyl in concrete, but let’s continue.

This small team of America’s best digital experts will work in collaboration with other government agencies to make websites more consumer friendly, to identify and fix problems, and to help upgrade the government’s technology infrastructure.

We bring this up now because the New York Times just ran a profile of one of the people tasked with upgrading — sorry, helping to upgrade — the government’s IT: “The woman whose division at Google dreamed up Google Glass and the driverless car is facing culture shock in a federal bureaucracy ruled by creaky technology and run in part on the floppy disk.”

Let that sink in. Floppy disks. Apple stopped putting them in computers around the time Monica Lewinsky was flashing her thong at the boss. This is like reading a newspaper article in 1982 about the White House’s determination to use this new “FM radio” technology for better communication.

The press release contains a link to the U.S. Digital Services Playbook, which contains this somber lamentation: “Today, too many of our digital services projects do not work well, are delivered late, or are over budget.” So everyone involved was fired, right? Haha, sorry, joke. But there’s hope: Play No. 6 notes that a project should have one boss and that that person should be held accountable.

Translation: Outsource as much as you can, because we can’t fire old Pete. He was hired in ’64 to handle IBM-mainframe data analysis of B-52 fuel consumption; now he’s in charge of the user interface for the HUD site, and he wants people to register by mailing in a punch card.

The Playbook is long and detailed and succeeds at its primary function: the completion of Project U.S. Digital Services Playbook, which carries no force of law and hence can now be ignored.

The press release, having assured us that Top Minds are here to eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive user-focused platform-responsive developmental structures, suddenly rips off its mask and shows the hideous face of D.C. bureaucracy, buzzwords waving around like snakes on a gorgon’s head: The process, we’re told, will use “Agile Processes to Procure Digital Services with the TechFAR Handbook.”

Sigh. You know, once upon a time NASA said it would go to the moon by the end of the decade. Today they’d say: NASA will, by the end of a preset time frame utilizing time-honored, consumer-familiar calendrical structures, enable a process for determining a strategy to develop the organizational awareness for logistically assisted, dynamic acquisition of temporary lunar occupation.

Last year an EPA worker was caught spending lots of time on porn sites, and he’s probably not the only government employee to do so. But it’s obvious now why this was a problem. They had old modems that topped out at 300 baud. Give these lads some high-speed access, and they can hoover up their saucy photoplays over lunch and get right back to micro-regulating the U.S. economy. Yes, thanks to the U.S. Digital Service thing, you’ll be able find out in minutes whether new regulations protecting the endangered spotted ditch leech will put you out of business. Used to take weeks before the feds would reply.

Now there’s a real difference in people’s lives.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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