Outside the land of the free, America's IT suppliers are admired more than America's political values. So why doesn't the American establishment promote American IT more?
US secretary of state Colin Powell has made Charlotte Beers under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She might better be named La Missionaria Impossible, as her job is nothing less than to rebrand America among Muslim 11-year-olds.
The Beers investiture confirms that, after 11 September, Western managers continue to prefer branding to the real benefits of information technology (IT). I was unable to attend the Senate committee on international relations that Ms Beers addressed some days back – but apparently she told them that the State Department’s website needs tweaking. Whatever position one takes on the role of IT in the re-presentation of America, this news does not reassure.
IT figures strongly in the world’s perceptions of Uncle Sam, but only weakly, I suspect, in the mindset of Ms Beers. Instead, debate on rebranding America has been posed as a Bush-style war without end to make the country’s noble ideals – freedom, democracy, tolerance – come alive once again. Failure to do this, it is alleged, will ensure that while the non-American world goes on being associated with culture that keeps largely local, America stays linked to a crass commercialism that is always global and in your face (1).
But if American shops, a little like GIs half a century ago, are now over-sold, over-sexed and over everywhere, American IT suppliers have much less to be ashamed about. Outside the land of the free, they are admired more than America’s reputedly illustrious political values. So why doesn’t the American establishment promote American IT more?
The answer is that it has lost a lot of confidence in IT. Business Week, once a big booster of the dotcoms, now charges that no new AOLs, Ciscos, IBMs, Intels, Microsofts or Oracles have emerged from the internet tumult: it would not name Amazon as a candidate for greatness (2).
Meanwhile, McKinsey’s Global Institute has concluded that IT’s role in the US productivity miracle of 1995-2000 was, outside the IT sector itself, pretty negligible (3).
Myself, I’ve always argued that IT’s potential role in raising productivity is frequently squandered in the pursuit of cultish directions. But given that, not so long ago, McKinsey took equity stakes in its dotcom clients, its most recent verdict on IT is quite a turnaround.
The turnarounds are everywhere nowadays. There was a time that the Wall Street Journal enthused about IT so much that it wrote about little else. But just nine days after 11 September, the Journal’s IT guru Walter Mossberg denounced Windows XP as ‘tainted with self-promotion’. For him, the instant messaging, digital photography and Passport user authentication technology in Windows XP is ‘a sort of Trojan Horse’, an attempt ‘to trap users in a sort of Microsoft company store’.
In America, anti-trust nervousness about Bill Gates and his bundles is nothing new. But what is new is the orgy of self-doubt that attends America’s view of IT. In his distaste for the ‘company store’ aspects of Microsoft and XP, Mossberg echoes those myopic non-Americans who see imperialism in the consumer marketing of retail brands like McDonald’s.
As the man said, get hip, guys. Despite all the social deformations that have attended IT, its universalist dynamic is something that even Osama bin Laden appreciates. Recognising the merits of IT will not make rebranding George Bush’s crusade any easier. But it might just lighten the world’s gloom a little.
James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is coauthor of Why is Construction so Backward?, Wiley-Academy, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))
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spiked-issues: After 11 September
(1) For a discussion along these lines, see Richard Tomkins, ‘Brand of the free’, Financial Times, 20 October 2001
(2) See ‘New netrepreneurs’, Business Week, 1 October 2001
(3) See Gerard Baker and Paul Abrahams, ‘IT’s role in US economic growth cast into doubt’, Financial Times, 16 October 2001
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