What a disappointment. Here we

by francine Hardaway on July 20, 2005

What a disappointment. Here we are at the Stanford Always On Innovation Summit, where Tony Perkins entertains 600 of his closest friends every July. His friends are the kind of people you wish were your friends: creative, intelligent, aware, innovative and sometimes even rich. You attend so you can hear about all the brilliant things they are doing with their new companies, re-combinations of successful entrepreneurial teams out to find the next disruption. They are change junkies, going from optical fiber to the Internet to search to collaboration to metatags. You follow them like you follow the characters in the �Sopranos.� What will these kings of the hill do next?

The whole thing is made more fun by the presence of bloggers like myself, who report in real time, and by people on live chat, whose comments (sometimes pretty banal) are displayed on two large screens in the auditorium. The chat people are having about six conversations at once, like IM on steroids.

But tonight something�s wrong. We�re all in the same room we were in last year, with the stage set for fireworks by Peter Hershberg and Michael Markman�s brief history of �The Giant Brain,� starting in 1947 with the Eniac and ending this year with the Treo 650, a device more powerful than 14 Eniacs. Or was it Sages? Those old newsreels of the early days of computing, before it became �personal,� sure seem funny now, even though I personally have lived through the entire computer era. I remember Univac and punch cards.

We�ve seen a brief ceremony introducing the Always On 100 � those cool small companies that make content management, security, or collaboration software, or devices. In the next few days, we will get to hear their CEO pitches.

We�re in a good mood, thinking about innovation, when all of a sudden Michael Medved, Jerry Brown and Sandy Berger, the keynoters, hit the stage, and the room literally heats up. It�s as though someone has turned off the air.

Tony Perkins starts it off by talking about Bush�s nominee for the Supremes, who happens to be a former law partner of Sandy Berger, who happened to be Clinton�s former National Security Advisor. And from there, it gets worse. The conversation takes a sharp left to Roe v. Wade, and to the larger issue of abortion. From there, it cannot help but explode into the war in Iraq, whether it was right to go in there and whether we can withdraw without shame.

By this time, the people on the interactive chat have lost patience. They are begging Tony to change the subject. They are asking him what all this has to do with innovation, and they are flaming each other like high school kids. The four guys up on the stage are chatting together like friends at a cocktail party, two or three sheets to the wind.

In the mean time, the air conditioning seems to be off, and people are beginning to sweat. The wine and cheese are outside. A few folks bail. The folks watching the web cast from home begin to go for the beer.

Michael Medved, who is very well-informed, begins to pontificate. Although the real-time polling shows the participants think he�s right, people leave in droves. They go outside, where they either continue the conversation about politics or go back to business, doing what they came here for.

I used to think it was a shame that the technology community was not more engaged. But the technology community is like Hollywood; when it engages, unless through visual representation in movies, it loses its core purpose. Hollywood should export the BEST parts of American culture, and stop running for political office. Technology should continue to raise the quality of life globally, and stop sitting around like CrossFire.

To me, we wasted the first evening of the Innovation Summit having a conversation any group of guys in a bowling alley could have had. Sure the panelists had more information than most. But to me the essence of Silicon Valley, and of innovation in general, is that it is color blind, nation blind, blind to everything except the merit of the idea.

The best way to win the war on terror is to continue to innovate in ways that bring the third world closer to the first. This morning I got an email from a friend in Pakistan who, after being educated in the US, went home in 2000 to start a business. He did it on purpose to change attitudes. I am going to try to visit him this year, to show people in Pakistan that Americans don�t have horns. If I have to wear a veil, or a burka, or feathers, I will do it � out of respect for someone else�s beliefs. After all, when I go into a Catholic church and everyone else kneels, I also kneel although I am not a Catholic.

The technology community can be a force for change. But it has to promote change within its core competencies: technology, job generation, and capital formation.

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