How bad is Washington at technology?
‘I am a professional at technology,” President Trump told a pool of reporters on Thursday.
Suppress, if you can (for I cannot), the memory of Trump’s recent battle royale with an umbrella, and this claim still strains belief — even by Trumpian standards.
For one thing, I do not claim to be a professional at technology and can still confidently tell you I would never be mistaken for one by referring to myself as a “professional at technology.”
For another, [gestures broadly at Washington]. They don’t have those there.
Monitor our leaders (and their lawyers) in action when left to their own literal devices, and you will not come away with a super-confident feeling regarding their collective grasp of the various technologies they regulate. It’s a systemwide error.
Just this past week, attorneys for recently convicted lobbyist and former Trump aide Paul Manafort — who himself has recently found himself hoisted by his own telltale document conversions, poor password practices, drafts-folder antics, track-changes betrayals, and other sneaky techniques that aren’t nearly sneaky enough — appear to have made a botched redaction attempt in a response to the special counsel that revealed previously unreported and, by Washington standards, objectively juicy details about the investigation.
(And by legal standards, it was a rookie enough fail to inspire the American Bar Association to post a helpful reminder for lawyers on proper redaction protocol so as, you know, not to ruin their clients’ lives.)
It was an apparent screw-up reminiscent of another sausage-fingered oopsie a few months ago when mysteriously sloppy cutting and pasting in a court filing seemed to reveal federal charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Or when Trump proved himself once again a walking declassification hazard by tweeting a video that haphazardly revealed the location and identities of a Navy SEAL team.
Or when Congress tried to understand Facebook only to faceplant. Or Google (ditto). Or how to set up Netflix if you’ve only got the old Apple TV and are missing the special cable for it. No, wait, that was my folks. My point stands.
There’s little institutional understanding of how technology works (and how it can best be put to work). That curiosity only springs up around scandals, like a search for a manual after a box fries. Meanwhile, most of the legislators who seize camera time by attempting to regulate the Internet in public seem about as qualified for the task as I am to edit the swimsuit issue.
Does it start at the top? That depends. Does a swirling vortex of ineptitude have a top?
Certainly, the president figures at the center. Depositions given by Trump over the years reveal an old-school executive historically slow to embrace tech of all sorts, shrinking from texting, abstaining from home or office computers (as late as 2007), and not doing “the e-mail thing” — unless by “thing” you mean having people type what you say into the body of an e-mail and sending it.
And casual observation of POTUS in action reveals a president fond of printouts and PDFs, rarely spotted on or even near laptops, rarely seen taking the thumbs-on approach that consumes his evenings and mornings (yet perhaps seen most clearly in the tweets his fits yield).
When Trump wanted to thank conservative columnist Erick Erickson for a piece he wrote in 2015, according to Politico, he “scribbled a note with a black Sharpie and had his assistant make a digital scan of the note and e-mail it to Erickson,” who said Trump “considers e-mail a distraction.”
He’s an analog guy; and the Wall is the ultimate analogue.
“The Democrats are trying to belittle the concept of a Wall, calling it old fashioned,” he tweeted a couple weeks ago (much to Twitter’s delight). “ The fact is there is nothing else’s that will work, and that has been true for thousands of years. It’s like the wheel, there is nothing better. I know tech better than anyone, & technology. . .”
Facts are facts, America.
But lately it feels like the problem radiates way beyond Trump and his many spilled cups of proverbial covfefe. Or Kanye West, who, drawn too close to the event horizon of Trump’s desk in the Oval Office, showed his iPhone password to the entire world.
Sure, sometimes these flubs can be revelatory. It was a failed redaction that revealed a pay-for-access program for user data at Facebook. And a failure to properly crop a screenshot made public just which left-wing activist groups were being monitored by Massachusetts State Police — to the point that they were bookmarked.
And even way out on the outer ideological bands of the system, ineptitude becomes something of a disinfectant. The street-fighting polo modeling “Western chauvinist” organization the Proud Boys botched the redactions on their own publicly posted bylaws, inadvertently outing the ranks of their “Elders Chapter” for all the world to tweet. (Side note: America, the only country where one can be both boy and elder.)
But the non-entertaining side of all of this incompetence comes in the form of repeated reminders that these folks are running things — and probably have like 30 tabs open right now. Democracy has never been more in need of a help desk, and until we can get this thing restored to factory settings, we are our own “professionals at technology.”
God save us. (That’s File, then Save.)