Techies and Politicians: On Different Networks

Opinion: Not only do techies and the folks in Washington use different networks, but they are also of a different mindset when it comes to change, but that's the first thing that needs to change.

Last week, this column spent a few moments discussing the attitudes and habits of folks in Washington, D.C., who make and enact laws that affect the tech business. It was inspired by a conversation I had with The Gillmor Gang about wireless Internet access that made me think a bit about the different attitudes coming together as Congress begins to debate a number of issues important to the tech community, namely changes to copyright law and a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read Chris Nolans column "Hangin with the Not-So-Technical Crowd."

The first things folks in Washington need to know about tech types is that almost none of them uses telephones or fax machines. They dont need them.

No, they have not perfected mind-reading. Not yet, anyway. For quick questions or comments, they rely on instant or text messaging on phones and small PDAs or BlackBerrys. For documents, they send Acrobat PDFs. And if its really important, you can try them on Skype.

In tech circles, the more power and influence you have, the more—and the more recent—equipment you have on your utility belt. In Washington, the more influence you have, the lighter your suit pockets. Why? Because you are on the network.

The network in tech circles is constant and invisible and always on, ready when needed. It lets you find and communicate with the person you need to reach in the blink of an eye, and it can be set up overnight pretty much anywhere. It moves with you because you—and your machines—are part of the network.

The network in Washington is just as fast—sometimes breathtakingly so—but it takes years to construct, is specific and personal, and is built on communication that often cant be written down. This difference is one reason the tech crowd likes the literal and the specific; Washington prefers nuance and tradition. And while tech folks love the new—even if its kludgy and needs work—the rest of the world would rather save a few dollars and buy something that works.

And, of course, theres that more annoying problem: arrogance. "Geek determinism" is the phrase activist Cory Doctorow uses to describe the nerd belief that anything standing in the way of technologically induced change will necessarily become road kill in the grand march to the future.

Thats not an inaccurate world view, of course. After all, it is techs love of change—and its demand that this love be shared and treasured by others—that is at the very core of being.

A love of change has brought us—in 10 short years—a host of innovations, most of them based on the convenience and ubiquity of the Internet. And it has made great and substantial fortunes for many people. You probably use of the miracles of technology every day: an iPod, a computer, a cell phone. Many of those who stood in the way of the ubiquitous use of this technology are, indeed, road kill.

But change—outside tech—isnt always for the better. It can often come at a wrenching cost. The debate over outsourcing is a good example. Jobs are leaving this country, and the folks losing those jobs are not adequately prepared. And rather than express sympathy or even some understanding of the displacement at work—and the politics of unemployment—many in tech have simply shrugged and, pointing to the net power, pronounced outsourcing just another inevitable result of technological change.

/zimages/4/28571.gifChris Nolan claims outsourcing has hit a fault line in tech. Click here to read her column.

This is the same attitude that many are bringing to the changes that are starting to occur in the music and film businesses. That, when it comes down to it, is what the copyright and telecom rewrites are all about. In each of these businesses, the Internet has cut out what tech types might call the middleware—the person and the company that filters and sifts—in exchange for direct communication. A musician can reach his fans directly, a DVD can be accessed online, a song can be bought in the blink of an eye.

For folks who love the choice thats made possible by seeing the equivalent of raw, unfiltered data, this is paradise. For those who like their filters, its a new, confusing hell on Earth. The legislative rewrites being proposed are ways to try to combine these two world views.

There are a lot of ways to sell change: as inevitable, a process that cant be avoided. Or as exciting: a process that will open new frontiers and vistas. Right now, locked in their own worlds, Washington and the tech community arent doing a very good job of bridging the gap between them. And thats a change long overdue. 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

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