Power Games

The thing about Internet conferences—of which I have been to many, hundreds perhaps, most recently last week’s eG8 conference in Paris—is that most people there feel bad about themselves, that a club exists to which they can never quite get into, that they are not quite math-y enough, or virtual enough, or social enough, or, ultimately, rich enough. The Internet, rather than being a leveled experience, is an intensely hierarchical one. All Internet conferences are about sizing up who has the most power.

The conference in Paris, hosted by French President Sarkozy and organized by Publicis chairman Maurice Levy, and meant to serve as a prelude to the formal G8 meeting in Deauville, likely came about because the French president felt outside the critical center of Internet status and power, and sensed the advantage of placing himself in the middle of it. The Europeans, after all, have been much more skeptical in most regards—and unhip—than the Americans about the Internet panacea, with the French imposing a set of unenforceable rules (the three strikes rules) about piracy, and the Italians indicting Google executives on privacy issues.

Sarkozy opened the conference with a rambling discourse about industrial transformation and revolution meant to establish his digital collegiality. But, as though helplessly, the speech quickly became about the primacy of government and its role in overseeing the details of the revolution. Whatever cred he hoped to gain was mired in his natural turn to statism and bureaucracy and inability to see wealth being created and worlds transforming without government interference.

Intended or not, the theme of the conference quickly became heavy-handed and uncool politicians against the Internet poets.

Curiously, the cool Internet people are, almost to a man, liberal democrat types who, in any other scenario, would welcome government taking an active, if sagacious role, in economic regulation and development. You can bet that there wasn’t a man or woman at this conference who does not believe that the economic maelstrom was caused by government laxity and disregard.

Still, the Internet people are profoundly opposed to almost every initiative on the part of any government to involve itself in digital life.

This is not so much a Republican-like view—although the mantra of the Internet people is as righteous and militant as any Midwest chamber of commerce—as a hierarchical one: Bureaucrats are not smart enough to regulate the Internet.

An essential part of Internet culture is about the specialness and the higher being of the people who have created it: We are running the world because God made our brains so good. Any effort to involve less good brains is a threat to growth and innovation.

Two of the purest proponents of this exceptionalism, Jeff Jarvis and Lawrence Lessig—the first a journalist and the latter a lawyer, both of whom have made careers as Internet culture gadflies—exerted themselves at the conference. Jarvis, a preacher-like figure, stood up in the audience and exhorted the leaders of the free world, to rousing applause, to first “do no harm” when it came to considering regulation—as though politicians were haplessly experimenting doctors. In Lessig’s view the methods of government are 19th century and ill-equipped to deal with issues of the 21st century. What’s more, government is fundamentally biased to the “incumbents,” which became a bad word of the conference.

Still, government is government, of course, and the Internet is one of the world’s major growth industries and poses some of the most significant infrastructure issues, so there will be regulation.

This was, then, a negotiation.

Here were two establishments—each with deep agendas and vast resources.

And both with complicated hankerings.

This was a conference called by one of the most over-regulating governments in Europe, and yet the cream of the Internet elite showed up. How come? Not least of all because Internet people, being smart and liberal, love politics and government. Eric Schmidt, representing Google at the conference, is said to be considering a political future—the first digital president, someone at the conference noted. The main status point was about being among the handful of people who would go from the conference to personally brief the world’s leaders in Deauville.

For the politicians, there was, in addition to a knee-jerk penchant for regulation, open awe for Internet brains and celebrity. It is almost impossible, and certainly embarrassing, to describe the slavish adulation on the part of the European bureaucrats for Mark Zuckerberg.

What was going on here was, then, not the opposition of two powerful camps, but the beginning of a process in which they merge. The true establishment is one establishment.