Why Obama and McCain Don't Get Tech

The usual reply is that electronics is pretty complicated stuff, and you can't expect an elected official to understand the nuances of semiconductor architecture, Uniform Resource Locator syntax, and Boolean algebra. True enough. But it has also been almost 70 years since the invention of the computer and the transistor, and almost 40 years since the creation of the Darpa/Arpa/Internet, so is it too much to ask for these folks to at least have a rudimentary understanding of these technologies?

Worse yet, one can make a very strong case that Moore's Law of semiconductors and Metcalfe's Law of networks have done a better job of explaining the course of the last half-century than any other metric – census data, demographics, life expectancies, purchasing power, church affiliations, etc. – beloved by sociologists and futurists.

Yet, despite the fact that Moore's Law, to take the most extreme example, was first formulated in 1964, and probably 30 million Americans who work in tech know it by heart, I'll wager that no more than a handful of our 535 Representatives and Senators know what it is, much less can explain its implications. Given the central role that electronics and high tech plays in the economic health of the nation they represent, and the crucial part it plays in sparking cultural changes – music downloads, the Web, digital television – that ripple across society and lead to the revision of existing law, shouldn't they know this stuff?

As for tech being complicated: sure it is. But to obtain a basic understanding of how it all works (sand to silicon to systems to software to networks, the on/off switch to silicon gates, hardware to software to firmware to applications), and the larger forces (like Metcalfe's Law) takes, oh, about … a half hour.

I know this because I've done it, with schoolchildren, and I'm not that great a teacher. You might think that somewhere in the course of their often decades-long careers that these legislators might have found room in their busy schedules of calling on contributors and attending embassy parties to devote 30 minutes to educating themselves on such an important topic.

But even if they did set aside the time, there's no guarantee they'd actually listen. Exactly once in my 30-year career as a journalist was I asked to explain the digital world to a legislator. More than a decade ago, T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor (and these days, SunPower) asked me to come in and give a well-known U.S. senator a quick tutorial on tech. I spent several days paring my presentation down to just 20 minutes.

Fifteen minutes into my presentation, the senator was already looking at his watch. At the 17-minute mark, having learned nothing, the senator excused himself to do what he had really come to Silicon Valley for: hit up T.J. for money.

All of this may seem like just another amusing example of how out-of-touch our elected officials are. But it has dangerous implications. Over the last two decades we have seen Congress (and the administration), out of ignorance, reaction or just plain grandstanding, do almost everything it can to undermine high technology, and especially entrepreneurship, from crushing regulations (which is why there are no tech IPOs anymore) and anti-trust harassment to bizarre accounting requirements on stock options to criminalizing success to falling for the latest scientific scare.

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