Hangin with the Not-So-Technical Crowd

By Chris Nolan  |  Posted 2005-08-25

Hangin with the Not-So-Technical Crowd

As summer ends and the fall legislative session begins in Congress, its worth taking a few minutes to consider the differences between two worlds: those who live and breathe on the network and those who think of online communication as more like a phone call or a TV show than a constant, reliable presence. This is the first look—inspired by a conversation I had last week with The Gillmor Gang—at how these attitudes will affect digital politics in the coming year. This week, we look at the not-so-technical crowd. Next week, well look at tech-savvy attitudes.

The first thing tech folks might want to remember about Washington is that congressmen dont really make their own phone calls. The other little fact: Many of them dont type.

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They have cell phones and Blackberries, of course. But much of the time, those devices are carried by the staff member who is escorting the senator or congressman that day. It is that person—colloquially known as "the guy" because he usually is—who is charged with answering the phone and responding to any urgent pages, including making sure the lawmaker makes it to the House or Senate floor for a vote.

The Internet is uncharted territory for these people, filled with rumors and porn and worse. They have heard of AOL and Microsoft, but they dont know Craigslist.org or HotorNot.com. They think Microsofts interests are aligned with Silicon Valley. "Open source," if theyve heard of it, makes no sense to them. Theyve never used Google maps. And most are pretty sure this blogging phenomena is a passing fad. And they dont know too many other folks who think differently than they do.

In other words, theres a bit of distance between the people who craft legislation that affects technology, the technology, and the people who use and rely on it. Thats important to remember as Congress begins consideration of two pieces of legislation thats going to be important to the tech businesses: Copyright law and the rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act

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Hangin With the Not

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Congress may go on fact-finding missions around the world at the drop of a hat but when it comes to doing its job, its members are like most folks—they rely on people they know and trust. Just like everyone else. And many of those trusted sources are lobbyists from large, established companies who understand that politics is vital to their businesses. Outside of Washington this is seen as corrupt and, certainly, it has its less-than-attractive aspects. But it is—for better or worse—the way business is conducted in Washington.

More importantly, the folks who have been doing business this way see little reason to change. First of all, these large companies arent just monolithic entities that abuse their customers. They are businesses. They employ people. They add to the nations gross national product. They contribute to our prosperity as a nation.

So when they make arguments about how their businesses—sometimes their multibillion-dollar businesses—can be harmed, politicians listen. Carefully. After all, making sure the national economy thrives is part of their job. Hollywood has been making a variation on this argument—protection from piracy via copyright—for many years. The phone companies will make it when it comes to telecom legislation in a variety of ways: to combat the spread of free wireless for instance or to argue that voice over IP should be better regulated. And, only recently, has the tech industry, as a whole, been giving Congress a choice.

Now none of this strikes tech folks as fair. But the change that many in Silicon Valley are calling for—immediate adoption of laws that enable the new networked life—strikes many in Congress as both foolhardy and unrealistic. Who can afford all this new stuff? And what exactly is it good for? Do you really need to get phone calls all the time? And just look at all that porn and trash talk on the Internet. Thats not good. If Congress cant understand what tech folks are proposing, how are voters and constituents going to get it?

In many respects, the attitude comes down to this simple difference: Change, in Washington, is not always for the better. Because change brings risk. The moderate compromise, and stability, is the preferred state of affairs. Thats why the long view—if you dont like the law, come back and show us why we made a mistake—is the one that almost always triumphs.

Next week, well talk about the other side of this equation: Techs love—indeed, its ability to thrive—with change.

eWEEK.com technology and politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog. She can be reached at mailbox@chrisnolan.com.

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