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Questioning the Wisdom of IT Critics

The number and influence of outsiders who criticize IT is growing.

by / January 31, 2008

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better." - Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910

Ironically the century since Roosevelt made that declaration in a spirited defense of those who toil in the public arena has been very good to the critic. They've grown in number and influence.

The modern critic plays the outside game, specializes in the polemic, and uses a blog (for popularity) and a book (for credibility) as his platform. Today's critics tend to declare their enmity with "doers of deeds" as a token sign of their independence, even if they're actually former insiders who were silent about their contrary views while a part of the enterprise they now pillory.

Such opportunistic behavior may not be their fault. There may be no place from which to play the inside game. Speaking truth to power is often more easily done from a distance. Perhaps a now-defunct exception proves the rule.

From 1972 to 1995, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) provided Congress with deep, technical analysis across five research areas - including the "effects of technological change on jobs and training, and analyzed the changing role of electronic technologies in the nation's industrial, commercial and governmental institutions and the influence of related regulations and policies." 

The OTA delivered many reports in easy-to-understand, nontechnical prose. The OTA's library grew to 100,000 pages of nonpartisan, expert advice that won the agency bipartisan praise and a reputation as Capitol Hill's "best and smallest agency."  (Regrettably that didn't spare the OTA from closure amid the fervor for government downsizing in the mid-1990s.)

Much of the genius of the OTA is that it created a structure for the inside game.  Two-thirds of the OTA's staff of 200 were professional researchers, augmented by temporary subject-matter experts. Moreover, OTA drew on another 5,000 outside panelists who helped ensure that its major reports fully reflected the issues raised by a technology or related development. The OTA included humanities scholars, artists, poets and even a shaman - and it made the agency's work stronger.

Other than hearings and the policy wonk's equivalent of listening tours, it's difficult to identify any public process that lets outsiders so far inside a technology-focused, policy-oriented public agency. Sad, especially since OTA was closed on the eve of the commodity Internet - just when the societal effects of technological change were about to get really personal. 

By the 21st century, poet Charles Potts raged against being marginalized, on the outside, looking in:

             A digital system

No space for analog fudge

            Everything and everybody else is no place ...


            Step up and take a number

be one or be a zero

no other numbers need apply ...


            You can try for more than one or less than zero

but that would make you a novelist

            And we don't do prose

But the critics do. Among them, Nicholas Carr (whose new book is reviewed here) and Andrew Keen, whose 2007 techno screed, The Cult of the Amateur, warned that the participatory Web 2.0 is dangerous because it undermined the status quo. Keen argues for reinforcing the historic roles of the expert, the authority and the institution in the face of this corrosive juggernaut. He suggests the "moral obligation" to preserve these institutions seems to have eclipsed any concern for reform, which has been the driving force behind modernization. Still, he maintains hope that we may "find a way to balance the best of the digital future without destroying the institutions of the past."

It's in this balancing process where critics may still count, provided they can transcend their own habit of casting the options as only binary - bad or good, hope or despair. After all, thinking about technological change has been outsourced to these freelancers. 

The doers of deeds can, in fact, do better through wise counsel, but that's more than being cornered by arbitrary choices as they sweat and serve in the arena.

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Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.

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