Pretty much all of hip and would-be hip America has been lolling, partying, festooning, and tweeting in an alternate universe these past days. Woodstock for the geeks? Neverland of the digerati? Or (ouch) a retreat into a new Century 21 Fundamentalism, a bolt-hole from the realtime world into a might-have-been America?
In case you didn’t know, it’s called South by Southwest, or SXSW (which looks like something from the NYSE, but this proleptic and cabalistic stock is not yet traded), or South By, as say the cognoscenti. I suppose it might also be Burning Man. And there’s a different sense in which it could be TED. There are (ahem) various denominations. These camp meetings (ouch, sorry, please, don’t hit me) of the techno-Fundamentalists are anchor-points of an emerging, intricate, alternative world, a digi-religion, a hip-technological complex that offers hope to those who choose to flee the real world of (deep breath) K Street and approps committees and the Tea Party (TP had the support of 41% of the electorate in November) and the West Wing and deficits and sinophobia and donorphilia and the dire electoral cycle. An alternative world to federal Washington, and the space-time continuum.
Because America qua democracy, qua waning global superpower, is defiantly NXNE. Beltway America. Agency America. 202 and 20002 America. A vast, well-meaning, bureaucratic, Fordist, clunking, machine; swamping the bright and visionary minds who pepper its lumpen molasses, as it sullenly subsides back into the malarial swamp on which it was once built by the idealists of a teenage nation whose premature aging has driven its smart (but perhaps less smart than they think) minds to seek solace in a religion of disengagement. In a mythical America, convened far from the madding crowd’s ignoble electoral strife. A theme park, a Westworld (remember the Yul Brinner classic?), a place that multiverse theory says must exist but that for all present purposes is less a wormhole to nirvana than a sinkhole from reality.
Because America is going down. Steve Burrill, doyen of biotech investors (and, full disclosure, member of C-PET’s Board of Directors) stated unambiguously at a recent Innovation Roundtable that America has a choice: whether to become a second tier nation, or a third tier. Quite apart from current efforts to slash federal R and D budgets by a Congress newly cognizant of its fiscal responsibilities, there are deep-seated structural disabilities that the world’s leading nation has chosen to impose on itself in order to ensure that “world’s leading nation” is a title it will before long shed. The conquest of America is no achievement of hell-bent fascists or the bakelite apparachiks of Soviet glory days – back when the IGB (how many at SXSW know that acronym?) was a perilous thin red line and much depended on nuclear bluster and troopships rushing the Atlantic like a football field. No: it is a terrible self-conquest, half-witting, coated in irony and insouciance as well as plain dumb pig-ignorance of where our interest really lies. A self-conquest whose outcome is self-immolation. The triumph of means over ends. As if Pizarro had been an Inca.
But why has digital America decided to give the federal capital and all for which it stands so wide a berth? It is not my point that the Washington Convention Center and its satellite hotels here in the Beltway are where South By and its cognates should assemble, though that would not be entirely bad. The avoidance of NXNE is at a more visceral, strategic, fundamental level, and its implications run far from the epiphenomena of event location. The digital tribes simply don’t see Washington as their capital.
Question is, what to do? And answer is, o digerati, think Washington. Swarm Washington. Invest (old meaning; lay siege to) Washington. Work with assiduous focus and strategic resilience to change Washington. Task yourself, techno-America, with this challenge, do-or-die: Transform the political culture of this city, perhaps the most geographical center of power on the planet, into the SXSW of government. And understand that we truly need a Kulturkampf in which the future becomes the lobbyist for America; a struggle for the corporate culture of our political life here in an analog polis blinded by the present to its digitally-driven future.
Back to my theme. Where is techno-corporate America’s plan, in parallel with their 10-year plans to build markets in China, to turn Washington into a political capital fit to sustain America’s leadership role as Century 21 moves deep into its second decade? Why are the SXSWers not focused NXNE?
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