The Ice Cream Truck

If we look at the impact on technology investment in the aftermath (we think) of the Wall Street Meltdown, it would seem to be good news for Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Intel. Silicon Valley, although certainly impacted by big customers such as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch melting away or sold under duress, seems in better shape than many other sectors. With its own personal bubble having collapsed and been absorbed earlier, the chances of the nuclear winter of 2000 repeating itself are only high relative to the possibility of a system-wide collapse.

More striking in the backwash of the presidential race is the lack of tech leadership emerging from the new dynamics of the post-Microsoft realignment. Carly Fiorina’s benching for what may well be a case of telling the truth at the wrong time served more to highlight the failures that led to her firing than to put any tech skin in the game on a national level. Obama’s economic war council on Friday was bereft of tech heavyweights, and McCain is too busy running from Phil Gramm publicly while staying up late with the guy on the phone doing a global search and replace to change “de” to “the” regulation we need.

Perhaps the reason tech leaders are on the sidelines is because the major platform owners are so caught up in succession politics that they can’t apply the new wave of technologies to the problem at hand. Gates, Jobs, Ellison, and Chambers are fighting the last war with Google rather than leveraging the new real time tools. Even as Twitter’s growth as the premier information delivery platform continues unabated, none of the big players has a visible or even secret strategy for pushing the new architecture out at scale.

It’s not a technology problem, either, but a political one. This week saw the rumblings of a Windows 7 unveiling at the PDC a month from now, but where is the leak of micromessaging features inside a new service pack for Office or even Windows itself for that matter? The New York Times and Mike Arrington joust over whether the Google/Yahoo ad deal is good or bad for competition, but where is the debate over what form of media is most efficient at harvesting the most engaged and intentional crowds that have moved into swarming environments?

It’s a lot like the global warming data being debated while the ice caps melt before our eyes. Or the readiness of Palin to take over the free world if McCain gets sick or more confused than the networks can rationalize as a way of hedging their bets. Is social media a technology that can transform information routing or is it just a hippie mirage? Put it another way: what else is important if this isn’t?

Despite the Left’s insistence that this election should be about issues, every time economic catastrophe looms as a real possibility, we seem to fall back on faith to pull us through. Better we believe in 6 thousand year old dinosaurs than organize our information systems to reflect the extraordinary economic power of harvesting our actual signals of what we want and what we’re willing to reveal to get it.

Luckily, there will be a real debate this Friday, where we will be able to use television to measure our fears and hopes against these two or four candidates. It’s fun to talk back to the TV set, perhaps most because we know they can’t really hear us. We’d rather trust in things just working out than admit to our complicity in letting things careen. Twitter may be a toy, but it challenges our notion that we are powerless. Facebook may be a weakly-typed harvester of our individual social networks, but the aggregate activity stream of our personal clouds turns out to be a superior indicator of who we are and what we will do.

These two realities are in collision: belief in the rational world and evidence to the contrary. We look for leaders to represent us, while social media lets us do it ourselves. We blame the media for not getting it right, forgetting we are the media. No wonder the titans of technology are sitting this one out – it’ll be too easy to blame whoever bets on the wrong side. Instead, we dither while Rome melts.

Every afternoon around 5 or so, the familiar sound of the ice cream truck echoes down the hill where we live. I always look up in excitement, shouting for my daughter to come running. I always pretend that my joy is for my child, but the truth is it’s for me, for a simpler time when things seemed safer and in order. That’s why we look for leaders, not so much to take care of things for us, but to give us a clue how to do it for ourselves.