Obama's High-Tech Presidency Tackles Low-Tech White House

President Obama may have promised a new central role for science and technology during his inauguration, and his election campaign was the highest-tech yet seen...but on day one, the new administration's staff crashed headlong into a White House that is a technological simpleton.

It's a situation you'll know well if you work in a big corporate institution, particularly one where security is a premium: IT Security staff simply doesn't like new, unproven, gadgets. And when the institution is large, getting fresh tech for the whole site through repeated budgets is always tricky.

It seems the White House is no exception. New staff found themselves tackling disconnected phone lines, outdated computers running old software, a lack of centralized information, and security regulations that are designed to protect, but strangle usage of the most modern technology. The most galling of these must've been the Internet restrictions barring outside email account access, which will surely have come as a crunch to a team used to blogging, Facebook messaging and IMing--for official purposes, mind you.

Even the old-fashioned telephone seemed to be playing up, with external calls failing to connect, and the White House switchboard simply broadcasting a message that told callers to go look at the official website. That site itself wasn't updated for many hours--presumably as Obama's IT staff struggled with the computers available. Apparently these machines are old, mainly desktops, and are running six year-old Microsoft software, and it proved hard to know which machines could be used for what purposes. Must've been frustrating for members of the New Media team who are used to running Macs.

Older computers and older software appeal to security staff simply because there's been more time to discover and plug any potential security holes. New technology allows new freedoms but introduces new risks, and this applies from computers themselves--particularly laptops, which can be lost in inappropriate places, or stolen--to email to cellphones and cordless desk phones. Security staff can, of course, be persuaded to take on new tech, but often with reluctance.

These problems may be attributed in part to the previous administration's wariness about modern technology. And installing new hardware inside a historic building, with its own existing infrastructure and rules and regulations is never a simple task.

The Press Office staff were apparently one team that was prepared for the situation, as you may expect, coming to work equipped with their own cellphones and special Gmail accounts to communicate official business.

And Barack Obama himself has his beloved BlackBerry.

That fact may hint at what could happen next: Obama is a 21st Century President, and despite the White House being an institution in itself, rolling along through successive presidencies,following its own evolution, and with a history of protocols and security procedures that have evolved over the years...it might be just the time for a new broom.

After all, if H.M. Queen Elizabeth can do it for Buckingham Palace and other royal properties, there's no reason a few presidential executive orders couldn't make swift technological changes at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

[Washington Post]

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2 Comments

  • Kit Eaton

    I don't know about "elitist"... but certainly low-tech versus high-tech presidencies will represent different outlooks on our modern world.

  • Toni Spott

    Our new president is truly "one of the people". He is such an everyday man & I for one am very happy about that. It was time to get the elitist group out of the White House & get in people who relate to the real people.
    tspott@shorewest.com