Bill Clinton in Surprise Talk on Tech: It's the Institutions, Stupid

The former president made a surprise visit to the Wired for Change conference in New York today to speak on the use—and overuse—of technology in developing and developed nations.

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 Though he joked he was too much of a dinosaur to weigh in on technology, President Bill Clinton did so anyway at a surprise talk at today's Wired for Change conference at the Ford Foundation in New York. Technology is not inherently a force for good, he cautioned, but is only so if it helps build, strengthen, and reform institutions.

Clinton cautioned that while technology holds much promise to help bring progress, technology in itself isn't sufficient to elevate the condition of the world's poor, and in some cases (particularly in developed countries), technology is often part of the problem.

He began on a lighthearted note, admitting that maybe he wasn't the most credible person to weigh in on technology. "I sent a grand total of two emails as president," he said, "one to our troops in the Adriatic, and one to John Glenn when he was 77 years old in outer space. I figured it was OK if Congress subpoenaed those." When he took office in '93, he added, there were about 50 sites on the Internet, and cell phones were so heavy that they were best used for bicep curls.

The stand-up routine part of his talk completed, Clinton pivoted to consider the importance of information technology in the future. He had just flown in from Haiti, where he could already point to several instances in which technology held great promise to strengthen the rebuilding effort there. Mobile phone companies had emerged, surprisingly, as heroic figures in an effort to reform the country's stodgy and traditional banking system, which charged enormous fees. Another important assist from technology in Haiti had helped increase transparency and information—sharing among NGOs. One of the most common criticisms of NGOs, said Clinton, was that they are often redundant, working on overlapping projects. Taking a page from a similar initiative among NGOs following the South Asian tsunami, Haitian NGOs had volunteered to share information on contributions and activities, all of which is published on the Internet, making the whole process transparent and helping avoid redundancy.

"Do we need technology? Yes," he said. "But it needs to be in the service of building functioning institutions. The big problem in poor countries is they don't have the institutions we take for granted." In wealthy countries, he added, the problem is just the opposite. "What caused the meltdown? Our financial institutions worked arguably too well, at warp speed." They pushed money up, aggregated it, and when that money was "dressed up with no place to go," people used information technology to help do fancy things with money that were disconnected with the real economy.

"The challenge in poor countries is institution building," President Clinton said. "The challenge in rich countries is institutional reform." Technology is only an agent for salubrious change, then, insofar as it promotes those twin goals.

He concluded with a roundup of science news over the last year that had cheered and stirred him. He had been encouraged to learn that virtually all of us share several percent of Neanderthal DNA in our genome, a symbol of our common ancestry and destiny. ("The two women in my family were not surprised to learn I was part Neanderthal," he said, though "they were stunned to learn that they were, too." Finally, in a bit of abstruse physics news, scientists had identified something about the subatomic particles called muons. Everyone had previously thought there were an equal number of positive and negative muons—but a lab demonstrated a slight preponderance of positive ones. The universe, then, was giving us good vibes: "Thank God," he said, "which means you cannot afford to be pessimistic."

[Image: Flickr user bronayur]

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  • Pierre F. Lherisson

    I agree with President Clinton not because he is among the brightest minds but because he emphasized that technology is a very efficient tool for acceleration of progress in rich and poor countries. He emphasized that poor countries must develop and strengthen institutions that will allow them to accelerate their progress.

  • Jym Allyn

    This also indicates that even when he is sober, Bill Clinton doesn't have a clue as to what he is saying.

  • Tse-Sung Wu

    I think he's pretty clear. Technology isn't the panacea that its advocates seem to think- think of all the well-meaning tech geeks out there trying to bring broadband to the developing world, e.g. figuring out ways to deploy cellular on the backs of cattle and camels (seriously), or ways to use TV to enhance literacy in parts of India while making money by selling advertising. Technology, I read from Clinton, should be in the service of institutions, which are in the service of people. Think of technology as one of many ways to meet the needs of your customers but it's not the end-all.

    His example of institutional reform also shows how technology was misused to help create the financial problem we suffer from today. Again, the institution was broken, and, like the assassin who upgrades to a gun from a knife, technology was able to amplify the magnitude of misdeeds.

  • Elizabeth Lerer

    President Clinton says "... cannot afford to be pessimistic." TRUE.
    We, the People, can no longer afford to support war activities. Will reducing military spending help make the world a better place? I'm guessing that it can't hurt, or hurt as bad as being blown up or shot.

    To Secretary Hillary Clinton:
    Why don't we give peace a chance?

  • Loraine Antrim

    President Clinton communicates the idea of technology in the service of building functioning institutions in developing countries. Yes, that IS important, but what is his main message? It's not clear.

    Is technology an essential part of advancing a country's stature in the global market? Is it critical to helping the population's educational, employment or standard of living goals? Communicating in a precise and specific manner is key to understanding a leader's vision. Just not sure on this Clinton speech. It seems like an afterthought, not a visionary statement. Loraine Antrim