Is America ready for its first BlackBerry president?

Experts say it probably doesn't matter whether the next US president actually uses information technology

However, others say firsthand knowledge of something like social networking isn't necessary for a president to grasp its importance. Presidents have set policies on many technologies in the past without understanding them, Berkeley's Weber said.

"Is it more complex than a nuclear power plant? Hardly," Weber said. And a president who needed a rundown on Facebook could quickly summon founder Mark Zuckerberg to the Oval Office to explain it, he said.

Intimate experience with a technology might make a candidate appear more tech-savvy and better equipped to deal with IT policy issues. But in fact, a user's knowledge is only one way of understanding a technology, said Jason Hong, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Hong believes he'll never use social networking the way today's undergraduates do, but his studies have taught him things the average user wouldn't know, he said.

It's similar to the way the US trusts its presidents -- few of whom have led armies in battle -- to be commander in chief, said Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance, which lobbies for the commercial software industry.

In any case, once the president takes office, he or she lacks the time not only to learn new technologies but to use them, PhoneFusion's Libin said.

"Anything to do with technology becomes a distraction at some level," Libin said. "I don't think we're going to find him on Facebook or chatrooms."

There are also built-in constraints to a leader's use of technology, Libin said. He predicted that a BlackBerry user who was elected president might continue using the device, but not in the same way. To minimize distractions, very few people, such as the president's spouse and closest advisers, would be able to send e-mail to the device. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server that enterprises normally use in delivering e-mail to the handsets might have to be augmented with more security. Also for security reasons, the device's coverage might sometimes be cut off by Secret Service jamming, Libin added. But the president might find it useful for keeping track of a frequently changing daily schedule, he said.

However, even though the president could make technology policy without having to rely on firsthand knowledge, that kind of perspective could help to shape his or her policies, some observers said.

People who don't use technology tend to see its benefits and overlook its dangers, said Tom Kellermann, vice president of security awareness at security testing software vendor Core Security and a member of the Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th Presidency. When confronted by a technology problem, novices often see more technology as the solution.

"A mechanical problem is not always solved by a mechanical widget" is a lesson that can only be learned by using technology, Kellermann said. In reality, the country's IT and communications infrastructure has security problems that require strategic thinking and proactive policy in addition to technological fixes, he said.

"His desire to deal with the problem ... will be motivated by his experience with the box," Kellermann said.

The benefit of a truly tech-savvy president to IT managers would be a long-overdue appreciation for the critical role they can play in keeping the country running and secure, Kellermann said. "The fact that they maintain and secure the IT infrastructure ... is ten times more important than anything you do," he said, comparing the importance of the role of IT managers to most other jobs.

Over-reliance on advisers can also be dangerous, said Harry Lewis, a longtime computer science professor at Harvard who teaches a course to help nontechnical people understand the digital world. An ideal president would have at least kept up with technology trends, such as social networking, by spending time with knowledgeable people over the years, Lewis said.

"It's not so much (the) use of it, but there's a level of familiarity. There's a sense of what it means for this amount of information about people's interconnections to be out there," Lewis said.

"If the president himself is not tech-savvy, there will be someone who will be, in effect, the person calling the shots on these issues of where technology meets public policy. And that, I think, would be pretty scary," Lewis said.

In that scenario, IT leaders would best spend their time trying to influence the choice of that adviser, he said.

"That person is going to be in a position to put things over on the president, basically, and therefore to put things over on the country," Lewis said.

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Stephen Lawson

IDG News Service
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