Democratic US presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about modernising infrastructure and his plans for tackling climate change during a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, US, July 14, 2020

View from the couch: Beyond possibility

Image credit: Reuters/Leah Millis

Finally, President Biden can set his course.

It was not a good day for a bumptious populist politician with awful taste in music and hair, a strained relationship with law and order, and a tendency to use social media as a vessel for intemperate verbal incontinence.

But enough of Joe Exotic’s failure to get a pardon.

Joseph R Biden is now President of the United States. I know this is true because, like most of you, I sat on the sofa holding my breath until he finished the oath. Then I drained a single malt that should have been sipped.

Biden has now hung a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the Oval Office partly to signal that he does have faith in science. He has also, as promised, signed executive orders on his first day in office that will see the US rejoin the Paris Agreement, roll back travel bans and begin to redouble the effort against Covid-19.

More than 50 orders are expected to be enacted in the next 10 days alone. For technology though, Biden’s more relevant inauguration-day comment will likely prove to be, “We're gonna need legislation for a lot of the other things we need to do.”

The new president’s overarching strategy is considered elsewhere but it is now worth scanning the road ahead from the industry’s side. Finally, it has a chance to start judging how it should approach the new administration based on detail and not just hints of what the administration might do to it.

This does not reflect laziness on Silicon Valley’s part, though there may be some payback for earlier arrogance. That change was coming has been clear since November. But the degree to which the outgoing leadership fouled the nest is remarkable and will have some impact.

For example, it is a week since the virtual Consumer Electronics Show ended and, while you could draw technology conclusions (and pretty positive ones at that), drawing others for policy and strategy has proved more difficult.

This was largely because many of the ‘think’ sessions had to be recorded in late 2020. Having moderated during virtual Covid-19 conferences that faced the same constraint, I am not about to start throwing shade on that. But many therefore carry a sense of uncertainty rather than what might once have been called evasion.

A good example was the conversation between the incoming director of Biden’s National Economic Council, Brian Deese, and Gary Shapiro, CEO of CES organiser, the Consumer Technology Association. There is little dispute between them when it comes to technology’s importance to the US economy but there is an impression that Deese is nevertheless holding a ‘watching brief’.

This relationship will not be as comfortable or as close as it was under President Barack Obama. After the seditious invasion of the US Capitol, social media may now face even tougher regulation than was already anticipated for its role as an enabler, however neutral. It is hard to sympathise (and indeed businesses such as Facebook and Twitter may soon find they have fewer allies than they thought in their own backyards).

Defining that relationship concerns more companies than just the behemoths of bluster. 5G is already rolling out. The hope is that Biden’s administration will make its policy intentions clear on that quickly, because while all the current activity is about enhancing the consumer experience, operators need to add innovative machine-to-machine and artificial intelligence-based applications if they are to recoup their investments.

Then how are we to live with these apps, never mind what we already have. During CES, Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, noted that tech players now face an additional design requirement: ‘Optimize for Trust’. Already, they can get some way down this road with reference to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. But will GDPR be, as some have suggested, a closely followed template for federal legislation or does Joe Biden have something else in mind? It’s not a good question to leave hanging.

The good news is that Biden seems to appreciate the urgency of the situation. We are only hours into his presidency and those orders are flowing, appointments are being made and houses are being cleaned, literally and metaphorically – who would have thought a do-nothing presidency could have left so much detritus.

The pressure is intense. Elsewhere on inauguration day, Biden recounted how he summed up the USA to the Chinese President in one word: “Possibility.” In normal times, that would be a great thought, but after four mercurial years, ‘possibility’ – too often of the ‘worst imaginable’ kind – is something the USA could in many ways do without. Certainty, clarity and direction are what’s needed – all of them in bulk.

And forget the honeymoon. It’s friendly impatience, but impatience none the less.

You got this, President Biden*.

* My, those last two words sound sooooo good.

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