Techscape: on Gore, Clinton and the internet
Interview Dean Laura Tyson of the London Business School (LBS) is a former University of California at Berkeley Professor of Economics, Dean of its Haas School of Business and ultimately President Clinton’s Economic Advisor
A chance meeting and conversation at the recent London Business School graduation gave me an opportunity to interview Dean Laura Tyson about technology. She began regaling me with stories about Vice-President Gore’s passion for the internet and gizmos of all kinds.
Tyson’s arrival at LBS was a turning point in the institution’s brand. Prior to her arrival, LBS was frequently confused with LSE even though the latter offers no concentrated business education. Raising LBS’s profile significantly with her own and by forward-looking partnerships with CNN and others has catapulted LBS’s world-ranking into the top five business schools and kept it there often tied with or above the better-known INSEAD.
Tyson is a strong advocate of the “Keynesian school” of economic theory which “believes in the power of public policy to have a positive effect on the world", she says.
And her response to those who say the best thing government can do is leave people and business alone by not over-regulating and taxing them?
“Well,” she replies, “if that were true the internet wouldn’t be with us today - government (DARPA) would not have spawned the internet.”
Tyson’s first tech experience was as a professor at Cal Berkeley in the mid 80s. “The university was moving from these large computers to desktops to laptops and it all seemed to happen very fast,” Tyson recalled, “but I never used one at that point.”
“In the early 90s, I was involved in a survey of trade and industry,” the Dean said “where I met and got to know people like John Young of HP, Andy Grove of Intel and many other technology leaders; now that was an education.”
Soon Tyson’s first book, Who's Bashing Whom: Trade Conflict in High Technology Industries was published. About it she says, “One of the things it addressed was the ‘silicon chips versus potato chips question.’” She said this as if I should know what this is and I sheepishly informed her I hadn’t a clue. “It’s the idea,” she said professorially, “that government shouldn’t care whether business makes silicon or potato chips.”
“Isn’t that ridiculous?” I asked.
“Of course it is,” she said, “of course.”
So how did Tyson end up the most powerful woman working for the most powerful man in the world?
“I went to Washington DC in early 1993. Robert Reich, the President’s Labor Secretary was the connection to the Clinton administration, and he knew the President from their Oxford days together.”
How much did Tyson know then about technology? “At that time I knew nothing about email or internet research; but I was about to find out.”
Apparently Vice-President Al Gore’s oft-derided claim to have invented the internet is not entirely baseless. Tyson says Gore was a gizmo fanatic supreme. He loved gadgets and had “a very sophisticated system with great graphics - Apple Macs,” she recalls, making me shift uncomfortably in my chair with the words “deviant technology” bouncing around in my mind.
“The VP took on Tech Policy and Telecom Policy for the administration,” Tyson said, “and was also the leader of ‘Reinventing Government,’ a program to improve the efficiency of the US government through technology.” For all their efforts and all the taxpayer money spent on this interesting “reinvention” scheme, many Americans consider it a Clintonian frivolity of gargantuan proportions. After all, look at the smoking crater left in the technology sector after eight years of Gore cheerleading.
Tyson added for good measure, “The President was absolutely not into any technology at all,” she sounded bemused, “I never saw him with a Palm Pilot or Blackberry for instance.”
How advanced was the technology the US government used, was it anything like we see on television?
“As part of the NSC (National Security Council), I was regularly in the Situation Room,” the Dean knew where I was heading with this line of questioning, “which was a surprisingly small room, not very sophisticated technologically; although it’s probably changed tremendously since 9/11. Of course we frequently had Madeleine Albright (Clinton’s Secretary of State) on video uplink from the UN which was super quality but probably nothing that different from what a large multi-national corporation might’ve also had at that time.”
Does she think the internet will ever live up to the expectations set upon it?
“The internet has accomplished a lot, but the first expectations for it were just over the top.”
Where will education go, online?
“Everyone’s searching for the balance between online and in-person learning, just as we are at LBS,” she says, “and that’s going to be the key: balance.” ®
Bill Robinson has appeared on CNN, PBS, Bloomberg and had his own segment on SKY News commenting on high-tech and marketing issues and has written columns and articles for FORTUNE Small Business, The Financial Times, Marketing Magazine (UK), Forbes.com, The Moscow Times, Cisco Systems iQ Magazine, United Airline's Hemispheres Magazine and Upside Magazine. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org