This article is published in the March 2011 issue.

Social Leadership: Empty Seats at the Table

I spend a good bit of time on airplanes, which has historically provided some respite from the unending deluge of electronic communications we all now face. Concomitantly, it provides the opportunity to think and write. Not too surprisingly, I am writing this column on an airplane.  Why am I on airplanes you might ask? It’s definitely not an Up in the Air movie quest for an elusive and magical number of frequent flyer miles.

Instead, I travel to visit governments, universities, companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to discuss the future of computing technologies and their likely effects on society, the economy and our technological future. Those conversations repeatedly expose two themes worthy of broader discussion in the computing research community. The first is the social future shock created by the rapidity of technical change, wrought by computing advances. The second is the profound dearth of computing researchers engaged in these policy discussions.

Technology Future Shock

In computing, we have been the creators and beneficiaries of a rare and transformative force, exponential increases in computing power, storage capacity and network bandwidth. When coupled with algorithmic advances and software innovations, these quantitative changes have created qualitative changes in how we work, play, socialize and communicate. Indeed, one need look no further than the frenzy of consumer electronics shopping around the holiday season to see the effect on our society and our culture.

Despite society’s enthusiastic embrace of computing, it is not without its deleterious effects. Societal norms and expectations generally evolve at a much slower pace than technical innovation, and our processes presume that change is gradual and generational. Exponential technological change, with its rapid, order-of-magnitude effects, can be extremely disruptive, creating, transforming and even destroying companies and economic sectors, obviating certain skills and spawning demands for others, and even shaping government interactions and expectations.

Both organizations and individuals are struggling with the implications and effects of technological flux, particularly in these trying economic times. Without doubt, this is another instance of Alvin Toffler’s famed Future Shock, with all the social implications inherent in rapid change.

Empty Seats at the Table

In the Information Age, those of us who are computing researchers are well placed to be bilingual, translating computing technology trends and capabilities into the language understood by policy makers and other influentials, and, in turn, relating policy desires to other researchers. However, as I talk to groups across North America, I am repeatedly struck by the relatively small number of computing researchers who are engaged in the formative policy discussions regarding our technological and economic future.

There are empty seats at the policy table, seats that should rightly and effectively be filled by senior computing researchers as we discuss science and technology research investments; personalized medicine and health care; smart grids, energy and the environment; education and digital inclusion; privacy and security; communications and access; and global economic competitiveness. Those of us who have been beneficiaries of past research policy efforts have a debt to repay, one due to our younger colleagues and to society as a whole.

I encourage all of you who see opportunities to educate and inform, to discuss and evaluate, to influence and engage to do so. The future depends on our actions, and it can equally be shaped by our inaction.


Dan Reed, former CRA Board Chair, is Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President for Technology Policy and Strategy and Extreme Computing. Contact him at or his blog at

Social Leadership: Empty Seats at the Table