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Gutless wonders of 2004

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the tech elite's conspicuous absence in the offshore-outsourcing debate attests to a depressing refusal to rock the boat anymore.

Maybe the start of the baseball season occupied their attention, but eight months before a presidential election, the near-total silence of the technology industry's biggest luminaries about offshore outsourcing is quite remarkable.

With both of the two major parties latching on to the issue, political demagogues are already filling the void. So why aren't tech's best and brightest mixing it up? If for nothing else but their own enlightened self-interest, you would assume that the computer industry has a vested interest in defending its interests and offering an informed voice on the matter.

Don't hold your breath.

Purposeful blandness so much defines the pronouncements of technology CEOs on any subject of consequence these days that few top executives--Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers being the refreshing exception--take a position on anything, anymore.

Too bad. I remember a time in the computer industry when CEOs weren't afraid to burp without first getting permission from their handlers. The tech industry I started covering in 1985 was chockablock with people who had conviction and brains. Most thought nothing about challenging convention to make their mark, even if it ruffled a few feathers here and there.

I fondly remember Jim Manzi, former chief executive of Lotus Development, once telling me that I had asked "one of the dumbest @#$$$ questions" he had ever heard. Truth be told, I wish we had dozens more like him nowadays. Can you imagine Michael Dell ever going off message to say something halfway as colorful? I don't think so.

Nowadays, I can count the number of free thinkers on my left hand.

Purposeful blandness so much defines the pronouncements of technology CEOs on any subject of consequence these days.
Simply put, sticking your neck out is considered bad for business. The corporate types are so uptight about making waves that they are kept miles away from anything that later might be tainted by controversy.

"I wouldn't let my CEO go near (offshore outsourcing) with a 10-foot pole," a PR advisor at one big software company told me. "I've gone both ways on this, but this is one I wouldn't let him touch right now. There's no upside."

Actually, I think there is a big upside here--more about that in a moment.

Free South Africa!
In the 1980s, the technology industry found itself in the middle of another hot political debate--this time over the divestiture of manufacturing operations in South Africa.

Under pressure from interest groups opposed to the apartheid policies of the South African government, companies were faced with a dilemma: Should they stay or go?

The divestiture story was front-page news, and before long, computer companies had to go on the record. Some suppliers, including IBM, argued that the best way to incite change was to tough it out through constructive engagement. Its argument: The lives of average blacks would improve, because IBM (and others) helping the domestic economy helped create more jobs. Others, including Motorola, Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer, ultimately opted to pull their subsidiaries out of South Africa until the government ended apartheid.

Either way, companies did not pretend to hide under a rock, hoping the issue would go away.

In the 1980s, the technology industry found itself in the middle of another hot political debate--this time over the divestiture of manufacturing operations in South Africa.
Unlike the abject gutlessness that today passes for the norm, folks took a stand and defended their position. And as I recall, nobody's business suffered in any appreciable way.

That seemingly antediluvian era compares oh so favorably to the current insipidness of a computer industry obscenely overscripted by PR hacks desperate to sell us happy pills. Sorry, but I'm not buying.

We can debate the pros and cons of offshore outsourcing until November--and beyond--without reaching unanimity. Temperatures on both sides of the divide are climbing. Supporters say the offshore phenomenon is the natural outcome of an open, free-market system and will lead to greater growth and opportunity here and abroad. Detractors decry it as a dangerous trend that will inevitably lead to the hollowing out of America's high-tech job base. The only point of unanimity is that this is destined to become a hot-potato issue during fall campaign season.

Pretty soon, it will be crunch time. The computer industry's leadership can try to shape the outcome by getting involved--and possibly tick off a few customers in the process. Or it can do nothing--and guarantee that others will decide the issue for them. You tell me which the nobler course is.