BROOKE GLADSTONE: According to a Gallup poll this week, 80 percent of the American people either approve or strongly approve of the President’s economic stimulus plan. Among those who disagree, a public policy group called Free Press, which said that 44 billion dollars should be allocated to broadband Internet alone to get us competitive with the rest of the world, as opposed to the 6 billion now on the bill. Slate columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about the tech infrastructure part of the stimulus wish list, and he agrees that there’s not much to love in the infrastructure we currently have.
FARHAD MANJOO: It’s not great. Many other countries have better, faster, cheaper broadband Internet than we do. Many other countries have economic health records.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: By many, you mean most countries who are living in the modern age.
FARHAD MANJOO: Yeah, pretty much everyone in the modern age has better Internet than we do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Another big tech topic in the bill refers to computerizing medical records. Who’s pushing so hard on this one, and why is it such a big deal?
FARHAD MANJOO: Yeah, this is something that many health advocacy groups and others have been talking about for more than a decade. The idea is that we would have our health records on a network where they would be transferable to other doctors, where your insurance company would have access to it, and presumably by looking at many different patients’ records the insurance companies would be able to determine what drugs to sort of cover or not cover. Researchers could get access to it, and it would also, people say, reduce medical errors, which supposedly kills thousands of patients every year. But putting it into operation is a huge infrastructure project that involves getting lots of hospitals, lots of insurance companies and many other parts of the health bureaucracy online and all talking together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How much money is in the bill for computerizing the medical records?
FARHAD MANJOO: It’s about 20 billion dollars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another piece of the technological part of the stimulus package is a plan to upgrade America’s electric grid. What are we talking about here?
FARHAD MANJOO: The plans call for modernizing it, for adding sensors all throughout the grid that would give utility companies and others a better handle on who’s using power, where they would be able to shut off power and reroute it to different places that need it. And it would also allow sort of a two-way infrastructure. So if you have at your house some kind of renewable energy source, solar or some kind of fuel cell or something, you could add it to the grid. You would be credited for that. There are many as yet [LAUGHS] unimagined power generation technologies that people will be able to add to this, and basically we'll have a much more vibrant power grid than we do now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you argue that one problem with the high tech part of the stimulus plan is that a lot of people are calling for spending at the deployment level, rather than on the research level. I guess they think that the research has gone far enough. You don't think so.
FARHAD MANJOO: Basically all of the things that we use today, from computers to the Internet to video games, the government played some part in funding the research of those technologies, so at the very early stages. But when the government funds technology at a much later stage, we often see many problems with how that technology developed. And lots of times it doesn't work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me some examples where the government jumped in to implement technologies and things went wrong?
FARHAD MANJOO: The FBI has been working on a computer system for the longest time that doesn't really work, the IRS’ computers. A few years ago the Census Bureau had a big contract to change over its data collectors from using clipboards to using electronic PDAs. They're still going to be using clipboards in 2010.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] All right, fair enough. So what are you saying to those high tech advocates who say, more, more, lets put our money where our mouth is, let's build that system? Are you telling them to hold off and shut up?
FARHAD MANJOO: It’d be great if we had amazing broadband and electronic health records and smart power grid, but I think that having sort of one big contract to do these things or having the government send out billions of dollars for one program, you’re often putting all your eggs in one basket. A better way to do it is to do it the way Silicon Valley has done it for a long time and the way the government does it at the research level, which is to send out a lot of money to a lot of different ideas, what’s called the “angel investor” model, and see which ones flourish, see which ones work for a while, and then continue to fund only those successful ones. So you do this in the expectation that a lot of ideas will fail, but some of the ideas that do succeed will be great successes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how does this plan of yours stack up against what’s going on in the stimulus bill? There isn't any venture capital fund in there, is there?
FARHAD MANJOO: No, there isn't, really. And the way I advocate for the money to be parceled out is a much slower way to do it. And I think there’s something inherently difficult about the stimulus bill, which is we want to do great things, we want to have great advances, but we also want to do it very quickly. And you can do things well [LAUGHS] or you can do them quickly, but you can't often do them both at the same time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much, Farhad.
FARHAD MANJOO: Thanks a lot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Farhad Manjoo is the technology columnist for Slate and author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.