Washington and Silicon Valley: Still trying to understand each other

The idea that Washington doesn't understand how tech works isn't new, but Silicon Valley also needs to understand how politics is played.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive

The headline on the Politico.com post jumped right out at me: "Silicon Valley: D.C. doesn't get tech." It was a statement I'd said to myself many times during a stint in Washington few years ago. I anxiously clicked on the piece.

It hit the points I expected it to. It referenced the lack of knowledge inside the Beltway about things like Facebook and Twitter and even cloud computing. It suggested that lawmakers spend little time on the Internet and don't understand it.  It spoke of important tech-related legislation being stalled on Capitol Hill for various reasons. Here's an excerpt:

While lawmakers often speak nebulously about the promise of technology, some of the field’s unsexy dilemmas persist. For example, a bill to inventory wireless spectrum — the frequencies that allow cell phones to transmit data —is stuck in the Senate. Much-anticipated patent reforms remain on the sidelines, tech research bills are mired in deficit politics and efforts to upgrade decades-old e-mail subpoena rules move at a snail mail’s pace.

As a Silicon Valley native, I read through the Politico story nodding my head, as if to say "Yup. This is what I was talking about." But then I got to the tail end of the story, where I read some words that stopped me in my tracks and introduced me to another way to think about the disconnect between Washington and Silicon Valley.

Sure, it's easy to poke fun at Sen. Ted Stevens, who spoke the famous "series of tubes" rant in an effort to explain the Internet. But we techies also forget about the time that Google co-founder Sergey Brin popped in on some Washington folks without an appointment, dressed in jeans and sneakers. Tourists have received warmer welcomes.

That's when I realized that this could be more than just a case of Washington not understanding Silicon Valley. This could be a case of Silicon Valley being naive to the ways of Washington. I know I was. From the Politico post:

...delay is not necessarily attributable to lawmakers’ level of expertise... it is the sad byproduct of a legislative process that moves slowly — at least, when compared to that of the tech community. “The Constitution didn’t envision laws being made at the pace of technological change,” said (Zoe) Lofgren (D-Calif), whose district includes part of the valley. “And often times that’s not a bad thing.” Some in Washington say it is, in fact, Silicon Valley that should learn to live with the realities of policymaking. “I’ve never really heard a member of Congress say technology is not important; I’ve heard a lot of tech leaders say, ‘I don’t need politics, I don’t need Washington, policy is going to hurt us,’” (Jim) Dempsey (of the Center for Democracy and Technology) said...

Like Dempsey, I've also heard those same statements mumbled, too. Many times.

Clearly, that's not how the game is played, though. Technology companies do need Washington. Their executives do have to play politics. And, yes, they'll need to bring in some lobbying power to help shape policy.

It doesn't help that folks in Washington continue to struggle with the issues that influence technology. But it also doesn't help that techies don't understand that not everything in the world happens at 4G speed.

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