LudditeCare: A Federal Agency That Still Uses Floppy Disks

Last month, the New Yorker made rare sport of its fellow leftists, by featuring on its cover Kathleen Sebelius crossing her fingers, a pensive looking Barack Obama with Gordon Gekko's giant mid-'80s brick of a cell phone, and a pocket protector-wearing young nerd (Jay Carney?) inserting into a White House computer equipped with a sclerotic CRT monitor, yet another piece of technology from the early pioneering days of personal computers, a floppy disk.

As Malcolm Muggeridge noted a half century ago, there is no way for any satirist to improve upon real life for its pure absurdity. Yesterday, the New York Times* ran a story titled, "Slowly They Modernize: A Federal Agency That Still Uses Floppy Disks":

The technology troubles that plagued the website rollout may not have come as a shock to people who work for certain agencies of the government — especially those who still use floppy disks, the cutting-edge technology of the 1980s.

Every day, The Federal Register, the daily journal of the United States government, publishes on its website and in a thick booklet around 100 executive orders, proclamations, proposed rule changes and other government notices that federal agencies are mandated to submit for public inspection.

So far, so good.

It turns out, however, that the Federal Register employees who take in the information for publication from across the government still receive some of it on the 3.5-inch plastic storage squares that have become all but obsolete in the United States.

Now government infrastructure experts are hoping that public embarrassments like the debacle will prompt a closer look at the government’s technological prowess, especially if it might mean getting rid of floppy disks.

“You’ve got this antiquated system that still works but is not nearly as efficient as it could be,” said Stan Soloway, chief executive of the Professional Services Council, which represents more than 370 government contractors. “Companies that work with the government, whether longstanding or newcomers, are all hamstrung by the same limitations.”

The use of floppy disks peaked in American homes and offices in the mid-1990s, and modern computers do not even accommodate them anymore. But The Federal Register continues to accept them, in part because legal and security requirements have yet to be updated, but mostly because the wheels of government grind ever slowly.

The mid-1990s you say? That was when Newt Gingrich, newly ascendant as the first GOP speaker of the House in 40 years, was barnstorming the country (to use another retro phrase) with technowonk speeches in which he noted how outmoded much of government was. Gingrich would use as visual prop another technology that was largely obsolete** in 1995: he would hold up a vacuum tube, like something out of your grandfather’s TV set — or an FAA air traffic control tower in 1995:

The big battles will deal with how we remake the Government of the United States. The measure of everything we do will be whether we are creating a better future with more opportunities for our children.

New ideas, new ways and old-fashioned common sense can improve government while reducing its costs. Let me give you an example. The United States Government is the largest purchaser of vacuum tubes in the Western world. This is a Federal Aviation Administration vacuum tube. Good solid 1895 technology. This is the updated mid-1950s version. When you fly in America, vacuum tubes in the air traffic control system keep you safe. Our purchasing rules are so complicated and so wasteful that our government has not been able in seven years to figure out how to replace vacuum tubes with this. This is a microchip that has the computing power of 3 million vacuum tubes. So today’s government operates this way; after we remake it, the government of the future will operate this way.

My point is this: this same reliance on the obsolete pervades most of the federal government–not just in regard to computers but in regard to its thinking, its attitudes, its approaches to problems. It’s one thing if we’re talking about vacuum tubes, but this backward thinking is entirely something else if we’re talking about human lives.

And we are. An AP story in late September foreshadowed the Obamacare Website horrors to come with a shocking reference to the F-word:

Administration officials are quietly telling key interest groups to expect initial glitches signing up online for coverage under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Two sources tell The Associated Press that small businesses will not be able to enroll online starting Oct. 1 when new health insurance markets go live. Instead, one of the sources, a person who was briefed on the situation, said business owners will initially have to mail or fax their information so that they can enroll.

The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because an official announcement hasn’t yet been made.

If you're getting a sense that the Leviathan federal government is connected together with bailing wire, string, fax machines, and floppy disks, you're not alone -- and you're one up on the president, as we'll explore right after the page break.