Silicon Valley Purists Are Clueless About How Washington Works, Too

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This week we had a little fun at Congress’s expense, detailing how little politicians actually understand about how the Internet works. Fewer than a dozen members of Congress, says Jason Chaffetz, can explain how Wi-Fi works. Fewer than five can explain what the Domain Name System is. Chaffetz is a Republican House member from Utah, and he can explain both of these things. Tim Lordan, executive director of the Internet Education Foundation, won’t dispute Chaffetz’s numbers. Ha. Stupid old Congress.

But a few people I talked to last week pointed out something that should make California just a little less smug: Silicon Valley doesn’t understand how Congress works, either. And it needs to. “In the startup community, they’re on an emotional high from having killed SOPA and PIPA,” says Garrett Johnson, referring to legislation that would have tightened controls against digital piracy. “One thing they don’t understand is that it’s relatively easy to kill legislation. It’s harder to pass a bill.” Johnson worked as a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before moving out to California to co-found SendHub, which makes Web and mobile business phone systems.

Chaffetz identifies the same problem. He’s been talking to tech firms to figure out how to take what he calls the “SOPA formula”—channeling outrage online to direct it at policy—to get some legislation passed. He mentions reforming royalty structures for Internet radio, for example, to let tech firms compete with traditional broadcasters.

Johnson’s experience on Capitol Hill has turned him into a translator, from the Beltway to California. Why is Washington so slow, colleagues ask him? Why don’t they get it? “There are many purists in the startup community who don’t feel they should have to play the game,” says Johnson, “by the weight of the argument and pure data, we should win the argument. But they have to figure out that this is not how Washington works.”

Luke Hohmann ran development teams in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and later started Innovation Games, teaching businesses how to play games to make decisions. He’s now applied the approach to cities, such as San Jose, to help them make budget decisions. He’s designing budget games for a national audience; I wrote about him last summer. Like Johnson, he’s forced to translate among cultures. “Congress at times correctly knows it’s dealing with values, not facts,” he says. The tech community, he explains, doesn’t understand how important values are.

He offers an example: The American cultural skepticism of government can equate restrictions on gun ownership with a loss of freedom. “Whether that’s true is irrelevant,” he says. “What’s relevant is that we believe it. That’s what the Silicon Valley people miss by a mile.”

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