The Silicon Valley/DC Divide

How to Bridge the Continental Divide

An earlier, more visionary NASA, thank goodness, sent probes into deep space. Some of them continue to ping us from far beyond the domestic reaches of the Solar System. But even they have not penetrated as far from Washington as I did last month. I made it all the way to the West Coast.

It is not simply an issue of littorals, or oceans, or the perspectives which follow from occidental or oriental orientation, or even occidentation. Though one VC I met did note that he looked out on the Pacific; and averred that Washington was really a European city. More common is general-purpose Valley-style eyeball-rolling. And when it comes to “corporate culture” – my base category when I think about the Valley and its polar complement, the District – we know there’s a lot more to the jewel of the east coast than the magnificently monumented malarial marsh that’s home to the ultimate nonprofit. Some place called NYC, for example, seems to be a displaced slice of California. It’s no surprise that someone, somewhere ensured that NYC’s connection with the District would be something called Acela, famed as the world’s slowest fast train. No one has been in any rush to integrate the Big Apple with the midsized federal raspberry.

Point here, aside from offering generally snarky comments where I think they are due, is that the Valley and the District are far further apart than 3,000 miles and a relatively serious mountain range. It’s hard to imagine two more distinctive, consistent, and contrary cultures within the United States, the West, the English-speaking peoples, OECD, or whatever high category we prefer for “us.” Indeed, it goes beyond “us.” If you are a denizen of DC, the Starbucks on Sand Hill Road is the restaurant at the end of the universe.

Let me underline this with three particulars. There are others that could be engaged. But these work and they make the point. It is a terrible point.

First is the creative imperative. In the Valley, they see themselves as visionaries. Tomorrow is theirs; and their confidence in innovative products and services depends in no small measure on their belief that the future is not simply influencing their thinking (we are, as it were, all futurists now, at least in these zip codes – if conservative friends will forgive me a Keynesian allusion), but it will in turn be shaped by their personal and corporate vision. The future is both their study and their creature. They have the kind of symbiosis with tomorrow that the District has with yesterday. So creativity, risk, and a long entrepreneurial arc, are their stock in trade.

In the District, a community of generally smart and committed persons, the “corporate culture” could hardly be more different. Pretty much whatever our politics, our client (sorry) lies in the past. Maintaining or debating the programs of the Great Society? Returning to the vision of the Founders? Addressing as #1 priority the debt mountain we have built? Each of these is meritorious, and wherever our political lines lie for most of us each of them features. Point is not that they are misplaced priorities. It is simply that they hail from yesteryear. Left and right are stumbling into the future with their gaze fixed on the past.

Second, as a result, the nature of the commitment to the future. Part of the problem with the Valley, and one of its clear commonalities with the District, lies in its innocent confidence in the future. For the Valley this takes the form of a wondrous hopefulness, the kind that is required if great capital sums are to be engaged in start-ups small and large in the knowledge that most will fail and the confidence that some will succeed big-time. The District is a naïf of another kind. The confidence is there, but it is one of presumption. America cannot fail; therefore, America will not fail. Innovation, as has been said, is an ATM. While speechmakers come and go on all sides, and they include some seriously serious people, speeches come cheap. News, guys, for both coasts: America can fail. And it’s looking increasingly likely that America will. And the reason, the core reason, the axis around which all other reasons turn, lies in the failure of alignment and interconnection between these two vastly separated entities. But we shall come back to that.

Third, a shared myopia. Self-confidence and disdain are among the several shared qualities of these two cosmically separated polities. They both think they are too good for the other, have no special need of the other, are bored by the other. Go to one of those uncommon conferences on policy in the Valley, and likely as not someone mid-level (aka not really that important) will fly in from DC. Which neatly reinforces the local view. I well recall one where said mid-level panjandrum insisted at the last minute on re-arranging his appearance as events in (hushed tones) DC required his attendance (I ended up missing his speech as a result). And vice versa. Techworld has its representatives in the District. Some of them are my friends. Mostly they are District hires; native guides; sherpas who know the Hill and the agencies and – get this – have remarkably little buy-in to the values that vivify the Valley. They are short-termers who understand “language,” hired guns, creatures of the deadline short-term cycles of what was one Long-Term Nation; of an exceptionalism inverted in high parody. Harbingers of a perverse apocalypse in which an entirely perverse deity rewards those who consider 12 months to be long-term. “My board has made it clear to me,” declared –in private, to me – one tech trade association chief recently, “that my focus needs to be on the short-term.” Now there’s a suicide note for America. Moore’s Law, aka exponential change, disruptive innovation, requires with mathematical solidity that the future be scoped and engaged more each year. Back in 1800, what did it matter? In 2012, the stakes are beyond calculation.

I once described the relationship between the District and the Valley as a suicide pact. Their fundamental agreement is that they are not much interested in the other. But of course it’s worse. It’s Russian roulette, in which we are intent on firing every chamber. We’re playing chicken with our children. We are absolutely ensuring, ensuring, the destruction of America, by the reciprocal delusion that the Sand Hill Road Starbucks, and the Rayburn Cafeteria, occupy complementary universes. Yet they do not. From Ushant to Scilly (if you are into sea-shanties) is, we are told,35 leagues. From the Valley to the District is an immeasurable span. Yet it is one of the two most consequent axes on this particular planet. (The other, of course, is DC-Beijing. How we shall ever address that without first bringing the Valley and the District into alignment? Who is asking that question, which needs to move fast beyond the rhetorical, in either of these zipcodes?)

What am I after? I have written about the need for every pol to spend two weeks a year at tech conferences. Please, please. 10 whole days, sans BlackBerry and staff. And the Valley denizens? Well maybe if someone turned the Rayburn Cafeteria, recently refurbished into smart 1950s railroad café format (sigh), into something more resembling a contemporary coffee house, the Sand Hill mob might stop by. If the pols commit to the west coast conferences, what about having the VCs and their entourage plan to be in DC much more than they are – and hang a little? A mutual transfusion of cultural blood from these highly diverse species – located as if in different genera –is a key, indeed the key, to U.S. success, global effectiveness, the triumph of technologies in a culture still shaped around human values – the future of a nation that has no deep wish to learn Mandarin.

The President, whom his supporters and critics need to allow inherited and is seeking to manage an economic and employment crisis without parallel in our generation, recently addressed Congress and the nation on the innovation agenda. For some reason, no-one asked me what he should say. There is surely no simple prescription, no bromide for the hour, no recitation of one ideology or another – although there are plenty of obvious answers that have failed.

How about this for some talkers? Three key opportunities stand out, and had they called me, they would each have featured high on my list.

First, “I’m moving Camp David to Silicon Valley, and will spend at least one week a month of my presidency there. This is not merely symbolic. I commit that three nights a week, every week, when I am out there inthe Valley, I will invite its brightest and best to dinner. On condition they will each spend one week a month in DC.”

Second, “I am adding to my cabinet not only the federal CTO, whose status there was discussed during the campaign, but the federal CIO and of course my science adviser; and instructing every cabinet secretary to appoint an under-secretary for the future, who will work hand in glove with these three cabinet-level officials and have wide influence over all aspects of federal policy.”

Third, “I am tasking a bipartisan panel chaired by Norman Augustine and co-chaired by the President of the National Academies and the President of the AAAS and the President of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents; and including both President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush: to make recommendations within 2 months as to how the U.S. lead in science and technology can be both maintained and advanced, with a view to making us the most competitive nation in the OECD within five years. I shall invite members of Congress to sign a bipartisan Contract with the Future to join us in ensuring that their recommendations are implemented in their entirety.”

Those among you who know C-PET will understand that such proposals do not assume a naïve idea of S and T as the solution to all human problems, or a desire of endless U.S. global hegemony. They represent an assumption that the human dimensions of emerging technologies will never be properly addressed if we do not ramp up our grasp of the significance of their implications at least tenfold. And an assumption that the historic role of the United States as a beacon of freedom and innovation will be best served in the 21st century by an alignment of these two: this nation as the focal point of tech/human solutions.

For that is the central question. Technology runs up the Moore’s Law curve. We stay humans (sorry, transhumanists, we do) and need to benefit in a market economy in which tech has enabled not destroyed jobs, and empowered not zombied human dignity. We need a hotline from the Valley to the District. My sense is clear: one of the two greatest risk issues facing the globe is the lack of alignment of the D and the V. (The other, as we noted, is that of the D, empowered or unempowered by the V, and Beijing.)

What to do? Obama? Boehner? GOP candidates? Let’s sort this out and move on to something else. Oh yes, like getting NASA moving again.

6 Responses to “The Silicon Valley/DC Divide”
  1. J Rhoads says:

    So true. I remember during the .COMs, we techies in DC –ignored the federal government and went back into the private sector. We were allowed to think towards the future and accomplished great things. Then the botton fell out and the ‘beltway bandits” were able to bring us back into their fold. We were forced to use outdated tech and deal with non/mal-technical project managers. Oh how we long for the economy to rise and re-deliver the promise of future thinking. DC has the talent to be a mini silicon valley, we just need silicon valley companies to invest in us.

    • Thank you. One of the amazing opportunities lies precisely in the amount of technology enterprise in and around the District. Up to 1,000 people turn up for monthly tech meetups, though rarely a word is said about the fact we are in DC other than the occasional ref to federal contract opportunities. Then last week I was at the VC Capital Connect conference, where 1100 VCs and entrepreneurs were registered.

      Can’t DC just decide to integrate itself with itself? It would be quite a start.

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