Sunday, September 21, 2008

Obama and the East-West Center

I went to an East-West Center (EWC) Alumni dinner the other night and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Barack Obama's parents were "grantees" there during the early 1960s. I attended the EWC in Honolulu first as a Research Intern and co-authored a book, Computerization and Development in Southeast Asia (1987) and I stayed on as a grantee to get a Masters degree. They also funded the first two years of my PhD before I moved to New Zealand to teach at Victoria University and where I finished writing my dissertation.

But enough about me. I have been able to piece together a bit more about Barack Obama's parents and the role the East-West Center played in their lives. His mother, Ann Dunham, arrived in Hawaii with her parents from Seattle in 1960 and began to attend the University of Hawaii. She soon married Barack Hussein Obama Sr. and gave birth to Barack Jr. on August 4, 1961. Both parents were sponsored by the East-West Center, which was newly created at the time to help foster better relations between the US and Asia. The EWC requires its grantees to take a foreign language (I took Japanese and Indonesian) and they met in a Russian language class. In 1963, the elder Obama took a scholarship for graduate study at Harvard University and eventually returned to his native Kenya. Ann married another East-West Center grantee, Lolo Soetoro from Indonesia, who was studying for a MA degree in geography.

Obama never studied or spent much time at the East-West Center, but his parents were very much part of the dynamic international East-West Center community. His mother and Kenyan-born father spent considerable time mixing with other international students at the Center’s famous cafeteria that looks out over a beautiful Japanese garden. Moreover his Kansas-born mother and stepfather from Indonesia were each selected to participate in the East-West Center’s highly competitive graduate Scholarship Program." 1

The East-West Center is funded almost entirely by the US Congress and has been run since its beginning by the US Information Agency (USIA) which also ran the Voice of America (VoA). Reports of it being a "left-wing" institution are greatly exaggerated, although like the VoA, it tried to develop good relations with other countries in Asia-Pacific, many of which had been left-of-center or at least partial to "development" thinking where government has a crucial role in a nation's economic, educational, and social growth.

In 1967, the new family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, during the tense years of the early Suharto regime. So intense that his mother who worked for the US Embassy, brought him back to Hawaii in 1971. After several years, she decided to move back to Indonesia. Barack asked to live with his grandparents and stay in Hawaii. His grandfather had been very attentive to the father-less boy and his grandmother was a rising star and eventual Vice-President at the Bank of Hawaii, one of Hawaii's two largest banks. Obama's mother returned to Indonesia where she continued her work in rural development that would take her to many countries in the area: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal and Thailand.2

For myself, I also met my wife during my days as a EWC grantee and I would be pleased if our daughter continued the tradition and ran for US President one day.



Friday, September 5, 2008

Cerf on National Technology Policy

I've been researching the possibilities of a "czar" coordinating the broadband/electrical grid in the future and ran across this interesting interview with the "Father of the Internet" Vint Cerf.
Towards a National Technology Policy

"I'd like to see visible evidence of the reconstitution of bodies providing technical input to policy makers. A small example would be the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee, PITAC, that President Clinton put in place. I'm a little biased because I served on the committee, but what I observed in the course of my time on that committee is that it had a very strong drawing power, convening power to bring together people from various parts of the government who were particularly concerned about information technology and its further development.

And the consequences of the committee deliberations had what I thought was direct effect not only in policy decision in the executive branch, for example in the research area, but also helped influence thinking at the legislative level. The committee went out of its way to brief members of Congress and staff about issues that had come under the purview of that committee. I think more of that is really valuable, not just at the national level but at the state level, and maybe even at the local level, when you're talking about infrastructure development, broadband access to Internet, things of that kind, you want some locally sensible decision making that's driven in part by technology and economics."

CIOI: If a technology czar of some sort is the result of the DC process, would that still be better than what we have now?

Cerf: Maybe a compromise is that there is an office of Science and Technology policy for the executive office of the President. That's where PITAC was situated, there's also the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, PCAST. These are existing mechanisms, or previously-existing mechanisms that could be reconstituted. Drawing on the technical community at different levels of government is what I'm looking for here. If you try to centralize it, you don't get decision making at the level of detail that is needed in all the various instances where you want to have technical input. Local conditions are going to involve different kinds of solutions.

My concern about centralizing things is that you don't get very good solutions. If you want to draw attention to the importance of technology in policy making at the national level, perhaps you do need to have a cabinet level person - but what is the purview of that person? I would compare it to the evangelist position I have at Google. I don't make decisions, I don't believe it's appropriate, but I can lobby like crazy in every venue where people will listen, to apply principles like net neutrality, for example, in the course of deciding policy. It's encouraging people to draw on valuable and distributed resources of information that strikes me as the most important outcome of this kind of thinking.

CIOI: Obama has talked about a national Chief Technology Officer. Is what we need really more of a national Chief Information Officer?

Cerf: Maybe, although it's fair to say that there's more to technology than information. So it depends a great deal on what Senator Obama has in mind in terms of scope for such a position. For example, DARPA acts a kind of central resource for research for the military, including to the military departments' own research branches. So in a funny way, from the defense point of view, that is the central technology arm of the organization. But it engages in a very broad way across the country, finding some of the best people in the United States and in some cases outside of the United States to help resolve really tough technical issues.

So if there were such a position, whether a CIO position or a CTO as the Obama campaign refers to it, having that position in the cabinet begs the question, what does that party actually do? Does that party have a budget? Are there things that the organization that forms under this position have authority for? The worst thing in the world is to have a position where all you can do is say no, because if you say yes you can't afford to pay for anything. That's the source of some frustration for a number of people in the private sector who serve as Chief Technolgy Officers, if they don't budget and staff it's very hard to make something happen.