If Truman was the Nuclear President, Kennedy the Space President, and Eisenhower the Interstate President, Obama will be the Cloud President. Ever since the United States assumed the mantle of global technology leader at the end of World War II, each administration has become associated with a significant technology that radically altered the world. The relationships between presidents and the technologies historically associated with their administrations have been varied. Presidents have caused, benefited from, or been out of touch with contemporaneous technology-driven socio-economic shifts. Presidents who managed to manifest the ethos of the technologies that matured on their watch have been perceived as with-it. Those who failed have had problematic presidencies. Before tackling Obama, cloud culture, green thinking and energy, let’s consult the list of post WW-II presidents for reference.
- Truman, The Nuclear President (1945-1953): Harry Truman inherited and stewarded the Nuclear Age from Roosevelt. His personality appears to have been folksy-Southern, with weaknesses in foreign policy. That sounds like George W., but Truman seems to have been viewed as rather bright and honest, if ruthless, competitive and surrounded by corruption. But like George W., he left office deeply unpopular. The social impact of the Nuclear Presidency was perhaps best captured by the Japanese — it was the age of Godzilla. Was he viewed as manifesting the values of the Nuclear Age? I am too young to know.
- Eisenhower, The Interstate President (1953-1961): The Interstate Highway System — a vision at once grand and pragmatic, and nearly impeccably executed — is a signature Eisenhower achievement. You’d expect that from the guy who won World War II. The social impact was impossibly dramatic: the death of railroads, the creation of suburbia and that iconic American experience, the road trip. All due in part to Eisenhower. Television comes in as a close second as an Eisenhower technology (he was the first president to be on television). But overall, I believe the Interstate transformed America more dramatically during his presidency. Television’s impact peaked later.
- Kennedy and Johnson, The Space Presidents (1961 – 1969): No president has been as closely associated with his signature technology as Kennedy. The grand, soaring, “Man on the Moon” vision fits perfectly with his larger-than-life personality. The social impact was the creation of a huge, trained technological workforce and the complete transformation of American higher education. Kennedy and Johnson are also most tightly linked with the space program in institutional ways: two major space centers are named after them.
- Nixon, Ford and Carter, The Oil Presidents (1969 – 1981): Next we get three presidents with only a weak technology angle to their presidencies. Together they oversaw American’s reaction to two oil shocks. Somebody more informed than I will need to comment on these 13 years.
- Ronald Reagan, The PC President (1981 -1989): Reagan is probably next only to George W. Bush in being out of touch with the technology boom taking place on his watch. While his backward-looking technological attention was on the Star Wars program, the PC took off and the mainframe died, as did the Organization Man. This was also the first society-transforming revolution that acquired momentum in the private sector. Perhaps Reagan’s neglect was for the best, a case of benign neglect allowing technology to thrive.
- George Bush, Sr. The Cable TV President (1989 – 1993): Despite his brief stint, George Bush Sr. is linked with an indelible technological image: GPS-directed missiles blowing things up on CNN (though the technology didn’t actually get as good as it looked until the second Gulf War). The social impact of cable TV and 24X7 news was the beginning of the irreversible fragmentation of American culture. But overall, Bush Sr. is a neutral figure with respect to the technological shifts of his presidency. He neither symbolizes them, nor appears as an obviously anachronistic personalty.
- Bill Clinton, The Internet President (1993 – 2000): Clinton is next only to Kennedy and Eisenhower in perfectly manifesting the culture of the technology of his presidency. He had nothing to do with its creation (that was a case of benign neglect of DARPA’s agenda due to Kennedy’s absorption in the space program). But he was the perfect Internet president. Just as the Internet was shattering national dogmas, unraveling grand cultural narratives and decentering notions of truth and canonicity, America found a postmodern president. Someone who could manage dizzying shifts in perspective. A president as relativist as the Internet itself; one capable of questioning the meaning of the word is with a straight face.
- George W. Bush, The Web 2.0 President (2000 – 2008): Like Reagan, Bush Jr. operated with a technological rear-view mirror. While he was getting excited about Nuclear Missile Defense, Moon shots and Mars exploration, his political and military opponents did more with 2.0 than he even realized was possible. But again, a case of valuable benign neglect. No president has had such a starkly incongruent persona with respect to the technology landscape. There was no user-generated content in his administration; just a closed coterie of toxic advisers. While Friedman was waxing eloquent about global flattening due to 2.0 technology, GWB remained a bull in the Global China Shop.
Why Obama will be the Cloud President
Obama will be the Cloud President, not the Green President (Al Gore is the Green Almost-President) or the Energy President. Here’s why.
Obama has a few technological levers he can push, as he looks for ways to deal with his big problems: two wars, an economy in meltdown, a looming energy crisis, and a looming demographic crisis (retiring boomers).
The first technology lever is investment in the long-latency, capital-intensive alternative and clean energy sector. Obama will be able to start things here, but he will not be able to finish them. It will take more than eight years to wean the world off oil and get it addicted to a cocktail of other energy sources. Any dramatic economic and cultural shifts that may create will be indelibly associated with the reign of his successor.
The second lever is the cloud. Building out the cloud (or The Cloud, as it may come to be called before he is leaves office) is an undertaking as daunting as the building out of the Interstate highway system. The Interstate highway system was built in three waves too — country lanes and plank roads gave way to the older national highway system, which gave way to the Interstate system.
But the good news is that The Cloud will take less time and money to build than a new global energy portfolio, and deliver its value far more quickly. Its cultural and economic impact will be quick and dramatic: the emergence of cloudworker lifestyles and culture. Its economic impact will be quick too. By reducing travel and wasted (and energy sucking) commercial real estate, it will lower energy demand far more quickly than corn, clean coal, solar and wind can ramp up supply. As every hardware technology is transformed into a cloud-tethered appliance technology, the efficiencies of the cloud will seep in everywhere. On the Green vector, we can hope that the physically lighter clients of the Age of Clouds will make for fewer tons in landfills.
But it goes beyond that. Everything from his mobile and text-message based campaign, to his crowd-sourced fund-raising and execution (a game Howard Dean invented and he perfected) screams “cloud.” His personality does not scream “energy” as the signature technology. He will just naturally be more at home with managing the impact and opportunities of cloud technologies. Energy will loom large in what is said, but the Cloud will loom large in what is actually achieved.
Does Obama manifest a cloudworker personality? Yes. He is all things to all people, an always-everywhere shape-shifting, Teflon coated benign Boggart. It was fitting that CNN’s election coverage of his victory featured a holographic Will.i.am — a literal cloudworker who was in two places at once. The Cloud-Matrix has broken out of Second Life.
No Honeymoons for Messiahs
As I write this, South Park has formally declared the end of the shortest presidential honeymoon ever (though with a fairly gentle satire). Where most presidents get 12 months, Obama got less than 12 hours.
But that is fitting. A figure seen (with either suspicion or worship) as messianic faces an unforgiving set of expectations. Obama’s acceptance speech last night was surreal — Lincolnesque and Kennedyesque, complete with Oprah and Jesse Jackson tears and soaring yes we can! rhetoric. Historical significance granted, a quick descent to earth is necessary.
So let’s watch. He’s got his feet back on the ground now. South Park has started the process of pulling his campaign’s head out of one sort of cloud. Let’s wait for him to stick it into the more consequential cloud.