Michael Wolff, USA TODAY
President's 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 "website." It was as though the word were 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.)
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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 technology 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, a supply chain process.
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.
At the same time, there are few CEOs who can get their heads around the notion that their main, value-added and distinguishing products are not the cars they manufacture, or credit they supply, or hotel rooms they offer, or merchandise they stock, but the process by which consumers interact with what is being sold.
Variations on this sort of conversation and commercial metamorphosis go on now in boardrooms everywhere. Consultants charge lots for this kind of stuff. And there is never anything but agreement, as there must have been when health exchanges were discussed at the White House, about the importance of intuitive interfaces and seamless functionality.
It is always: Yes, yes, great. Where can we buy it? Who can design it?
As in the health exchange debacle, this has meant a vast growth of middle men eager to be paid for deploying and supporting technology (they call it supplying solutions), who themselves know only slightly more about it than the people hiring them. In fact, these same outside consultants have supplied not just broken websites but, as well, the wayward Edward Snowden to help run the system. (It is certainly a pertinent question: If the government can't run an e-commerce website, how in the world can it process all the data that they are supposedly sweeping up to spy on outlaws and citizens?)
In the midst of last week's health care rollout, Wal-Mart, that paragon of private enterprise efficiency, happened to announce that, like Barnes & Noble a few fateful years ago, it now understood that it needed to rise to the Amazon retail challenge. Wal-Mart is going to do this, according to the New York Times, by "learning the technology business." It's even starting something called, wistfully, @WalmartLabs. Alas, Wal-Mart can't understand that the job is less about becoming better at what you do then being what you aren't.
It is something of an impossible, or tragic, or existential predicament, coming to grips with your own obsolescence: Technological astuteness or intuition or cool is less a skill set than a culture or language or temperament - it is also, more and more, a market expectation.
Non-tech people, no matter their good intentions, can't do tech, at least never as well as tech people do it. This is something ever-more evident to people steeped in daily digital life, as most Americans are. It is less clear to CEOs, many of whom are somehow still uncertain in their digital habits and reflexes.
The more out of it you are, like the president, the more out of it your product is.
Not to mention that the process is ever changing. So by the time health care exchanges finally work, they will be outdated - and they will stay that way until they are overhauled sometime in the future, by overpaid, under invested and bottom-of-the-class consultants, who will break the system again.
Not long ago, every publisher in America was talking about, and investing heavily in, the new tablet apps that were going to save their businesses and give readers a revivifying new experience. Just as the Obamacare Web debacle was unfolding last week, Adweek's sagacious media reporter, Lucia Moses, demolished this hope and pretense, showing that poor initial tech, lagging development, clumsy business models and out-of-it concepts have left tablet publishing a stillborn business.
How do important American institutions - pillars of government, media, health care and business - compete with, and serve people, accustomed to, ever more remarkable, easy-to-use, high-performance and empowering new technology?