The Situation Room is not as gee-whiz as you think it is. Take it from someone who knows: President Obama.
“I always imagined the Situation Room would be this super cool thing, it’d be like Tom Cruise in The Minority Report,” Obama, the guest editor of WIRED’s November issue, said during a lengthy interview with Joi Ito of MIT’s Media Lab and Editor-in-Chief Scott Dadich. “It’s not like that at all.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, the president described the tech gap between the public and private sectors. (Guess which side has better gear?) But it’s not for lack of trying on the part of at least some government officials. The Obama administration has done more than any other to embrace digital technology and modernize the government from within. It was the first to appoint a chief technology officer, a role now held by former Googler Megan Smith. It created the United States Digital Service, essentially a tech startup within the White House. And it formed 18F, a digital agency that tackles tech challenges within the branches of government.
Still, interacting with the government can feel positively kludgy compared to the technology most people use on a daily basis. “There’s a whole bunch of work we need to do around getting government to be more customer-friendly,” Obama said, adding that filing taxes should be “at least as easy as ordering a pizza or an airline ticket.”
This is about more than convenience. The next president will need technologists to help solve some of the most serious problems facing the country, too, including climate change and rising seas. “There’s still just an enormous amount of work to be done to deploy analytical tools and computing to crack the code around clean energy,” Obama said. “We’ve made progress, but we have a long way to go.”
Once the government achieves these technological advancements, the challenge is ensuring people use them responsibly—especially in intelligence-gathering. The most obvious example of this tension is the debate over encryption and government surveillance, Obama said. Even as companies like Apple seek to protect users’ privacy, the government grapples with ways of tracking terrorist groups online and cracking their digital communications.
“It’s actually a knotty problem,” Obama said. “Nobody can give me a really good answer in terms of how we reconcile some of these issues.”
In November, we’ll find out who inherits the task of figuring out how to untie the knot.