Corporate IT can emerge with higher Image

Over the past few years, the public image of the IT industry has deteriorated sharply. Having witnessed the false alarms over Y2k, the burst of the dot-com bubble, the decline of the Nasdaq, the telecom industry bust, the rising numbers of layoffs, frequent software viruses and the less-than-admirable behavior of Microsoft during its antitrust trial, many Americans have come to view our business with a sense of wariness and suspicion. The contrast with the late 1990s is amazing.

Similarly, there is now a distinct lack of recognized and respected IT industry statesmen, especially since Andy Grove retired. While Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy, Jeff Bezos and John Chambers remain highly visible, they still seem somewhat boyish and are primarily associated with tirelessly promoting their own companies. The only other really prominent figure, Lou Gerstner, would seem to have the necessary gravitas, but he tends to avoid the wider public spotlight.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy, it's time for our industry to begin to more positively reassert itself. The reality is that IT has never been more essential than it is right now, and our industry leaders have an opportunity and obligation to serve as best they can. When one looks at the challenges ahead in the long war against terrorism, it's clear that IT will play an important role.

It's now clear that the past few weeks have forever reconfirmed the value of cell phones, e-mail, videoconferencing, telecommuting, disaster-recovery services and robust, multifunction Web sites. All these technologies greatly increase society's ability to function during a crisis, and all look much more urgent than they did just a few weeks ago. It shouldn't be too difficult for our industry to reassure America of the resiliency of its information infrastructure without sounding too eager and opportunistic.

But there's another set of emerging technology applications that is considerably more controversial. As our country becomes more aware of its many points of vulnerability, there have been calls for significant new forms of government intervention. National ID cards, facial-recognition systems, expanded wiretaps, e-mail monitoring, credit card tracing, international data sharing, spy satellites and improved scanners are among the many high-tech proposals being floated.

These new and often unproven security technologies raise a number of difficult cultural and philosophical questions. Broadly speaking, our industry has historically taken a strong (if somewhat self-serving) libertarian stance. It has generally resisted export controls, e-mail monitoring, online privacy regulation and other forms of political intrusion. At times, it has been outright dismissive of the government's security concerns.

In this, it has had significant public support. However, public opinion on security issues has changed radically, at least temporarily. Consequently, many IT industry leaders might soon have to decide how strongly to support or resist expanded government powers. The country will expect our industry to successfully and gracefully manage the inevitable conflicts between patriotism, business opportunities and its pre-Sept. 11 sense of idealism.

The work of our industry certainly isn't as heroic as fighting in the field, rebuilding New York or preparing for the next terrorist attack, but IT can make an important contribution. Let's hope that if that time comes, our leaders can muster the necessary consensus, resolve and higher sense of purpose.

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