President Obama's fumfering response last week to the ill-performance of the Affordable Care Act's online insurance exchange included a discordant repetition of the word "Web site." It was as though the word was new in his mouth -- and distasteful to him -- and as if the flaws and breakdowns in the system might be part and parcel of the peculiar word.
Then he tried to draw a distinction puzzling to anyone who has ever performed an online transaction: He said the product -- these health exchanges that few could get access to -- was good; it was the process that was problematic. He seemed genuinely to have no idea that for most Americans steeped in digital behavior, the product is the process. (His distinction is like an airline saying planes are remarkable feats of engineering, so pay no attention to the fact that you might be delayed for hours on the tarmac.)
The president surely believes his important expertise is in matters of policy, law and political machinations. But he is, too, the chief executive of the U.S. government, with its increasing dependence on digital performance. And, in that area, he seems a near illiterate, or at least a big boob.
But then again, he is likely not more boobish than most other chief executives and senior managers on this side of the digital divide:
An older establishment that still regards technology as a back office function, or infrastructure issue, or buyable skill set, vs. an emerging native digital establishment that sees technology as an end in itself, serving a customer base with ever-higher tech expectations and standards.
Here's a story recently related to me by a guest at a White House dinner, which included Google's Eric Schmidt: The president, whose most important job is surely to protect the integrity of the monetary system, smugly asked Schmidt if Bitcoin, one of many growing challenges to currency hegemony, was anything he had to worry about.
The president, like many other managers, is surely not uninterested in technology, nor unmindful of its uses and importance; he just thinks understanding its nuances is somebody else's job.
Indeed, there are few consumer-facing businesses that do not have existential fears about Google or Amazon or any of the ever-growing and engulfing technological platforms -- and admiration for them. (continued...)
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