I was in Washington D.C. today at the State of the Net conference, listening to conversations about internet governance, Bitcoin, broadband metrics and privacy. And despite the fact that this an event about technology I’ve never felt so out of place.
It’s not just because everyone around me is wearing a suit. Here a few differences between political conferences and tech conferences; some of which are humorous, but others that are worth learning from.
All tech policy seems to boil down into a debate about states rights versus federal control. It’s like the debates over the Affordable Health Care Act with people in the halls and onstage lamenting the patchwork of state laws around privacy, internet taxation, data breach disclosure laws and more. Republican Senator Rand Paul, for example, got onstage to call out the government for imposing social standards on states at the federal level (a problem in his mind). Fellow Republican Senator John Thune apparently wants no government regulatory involvement in tech, including issues such as network neutrality or ensuring that the IP transition leaves people with some form of voice phone access. Whereas in Silicon Valley the axis might be around one company versus another (ie. Google v. Facebook or ISPs v. Netflix ) or legacy equipment versus new infrastructure, the framework in D.C. is decidedly different.
The tool of choice is paper, not a computer. I can scan the rows of people at our Structure conference and see the lids of many a MacBook or the glow of tablets, but here, while there were some folks typing in their notes, more were jotting things down on paper. And in conversations with people, only one ever pulled out a phone; and that was because someone was calling her. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler even told me after an onstage interview that people are more productive wearing a watch than using their phones to check the time because the phones then distract them. People clearly have smart phones, but they aren’t using them like they are a tether to a more interesting world.
No one brings their own Wi-Fi. While this venue has a Wi-Fi network, it’s not the world’s most robust (actually, that’s something it shares with tech industry conferences) so I brought my own service. Normally when I open my computer to look for other networks I see a long list of nearby hotspots with SSIDs that indicate they belong to individuals or phones, but here I’ve seen one. I even saw some unfortunate person with an HP computer sharing access to his device. But maybe that was on purpose.
This crowd is diverse. It’s not an equal representation of the U.S. population, but there were women and a variety of ethnic backgrounds represented in the audience, in the halls and onstage. Maybe as a result, people are most interested in learning about the issues surrounding what people do with the tech as opposed to the tech itself. For example, broadband for the sake of theoretical innovation isn’t as compelling as the actual programs for bringing broadband access to school.
When you attend a conference in DC, you actually attend the conference. The sessions were packed and the screening room was overflowing with people watching the proceedings. There are few people wandering the halls doing deals or networking outside of the breaks.
From my perspective as an Austin, Texas-based reporter, looking in at Washington D.C. is just as strange as looking in at Silicon Valley. But in doing so, it’s easy to see why the two are seemingly at odds. They view the world from very different frameworks and both seem disinterested in doing more to bridge the gap than one-off appearances at events like this.
However, one thing that’s true in both places is the fight for power outlets. Although unlike me, I didn’t actually see anyone else stopping to sit on the floor to access one.
Image of U.S. Capitol courtesy Shutterstock user gary718