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Digital dallying stunts S.C.’s growth

First Posted: 5:23 am - June 3rd, 2015

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Uber is hot right now in South Carolina and worldwide. Many will ask, “What the heck is Uber, and why should I care?”

The answer to the first question is that Uber is sort of an online taxi company without the taxis — most anyone with a smartphone and decent car can be an Uber taxi and make money.

The big reason that you should care is that the case of Uber is just the latest and most high-profile example of how we as a state are doing practically nothing to develop the needed ideas and policies for a whole range of issues that will radically affect nearly every part of your life and the life and future of the state.

Let me say that again: a whole range of digital innovations that will radically affect nearly every part of your life and the life and future of our state.

Am I overstating things just a wee bit?

I don’t think so. Think about this from Tom Goodwin, an executive at Havas Media: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

Interesting, indeed, and this takes us back to Uber in South Carolina. Right now Gov. Nikki Haley and the legislature are fighting with local governments over who should regulate Uber in our state. Both can make a persuasive case on the particular merits of Uber and our state and local laws — but all of that is really beside the point.

The really important point is that we as a state don’t have a technology policy worthy of the name — not just for Uber, but for education, state government operations, access to broadband, taxing online ventures, promoting tech startups and a whole host of other issues.

Add into this all the new issues that will be jumping up practically every day as the speed of technology innovation increases, and it’s clear that South Carolina is trying to deal with 21st-century issues with institutions and politicians stuck in a 19th-century mindset.

So is this really a big deal, or is it just some airy-fairy thinking and more techno-babble? Here are just three diverse examples for your consideration:

Hacking and state data — For those who may have forgotten, in 2012 the state of South Carolina was the victim of the largest hacking and theft of government data in the history of the planet — yes, the history of the planet. To this day, we still don’t know the extent of the damage, but we do know it affected millions of citizens in our state who had their personal data and credit card numbers spread around the Internet, and the state spent tens of millions of dollars to fix it. All of this to say nothing of the money, time and frustration caused to millions of citizens. Few knowledgeable folks who have delved into the problem think it really is fixed.

State government technical incompetence — In 1988, the federal government passed a very reasonable law that required all states to install a computerized system to ensure that parents paid their child support as required by the courts. This was part of a crackdown on “deadbeat dads.” The feds told the states they had nearly 10 years to get it installed and up and running.

To this day, South Carolina has still not gotten it done. In fact we have paid a total of more than $123 million in fines to Washington simply because of our state government’s incompetence — and the latest estimate is that it will still be another two or three years until they get it right.

Tech startups and dorm rooms — The stories of tech companies getting started in dorm rooms by a few really smart kids and quickly growing to multi-billion-dollar companies are legion — think Microsoft and Facebook just to name two. Well, we have our own version of this story in South Carolina called Yik Yak — started by three students at Furman, USC and College of Charleston.

Yik Yak is an anonymous social media app (ask any college kid to explain it to you) that was released in November 2013, and six months later, it was ranked as the ninth most-downloaded social media app in the United States. Recently they secured more than $60 million from Sequoia Capital, a big-time Silicon Valley venture capital firm, and this gave Yik Yak a valuation above $350 million less than one year after launch.

A win for South Carolina, right? Well, yes — to a point. You see, our higher education system is so totally out of sync with this type of new tech startup culture that a group of us was recently contacted on behalf of one of the founders, who wanted to stay in college and graduate but didn’t have time to fulfill some rinky-dink requirement that he take PE or some such.

All of these issues — and countless others — all go back to a lack of understanding and lack of leadership by the folks who are supposed to be providing the ideas, vision and governance to lead our state into the brave new world of a global digital future.

It’s just not happening, and every day, we as a state are suffering.

Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the South Carolina New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at phil@scnewdemocrats.org.

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