San Francisco in the late fall: If you find yourself in a sinfully expensive California hotel with hundreds of people wearing hooded sweatshirts and strikingly tasteless T-shirts, then you know you are at a technology conference. The few, pale-faced people in suits seem truly flamboyant by contrast. They exude the sluggishness of old industry and the far-away authorities in Washington.
Added to the mix are a couple of flown-in Europeans, who often are met with a blend of pity, arrogance, and indignation against unwanted regulation. None of this is new. It’s routine in this part of this world, which essentially revolves around itself, despite its pretension to be global.
And yet this year is somewhat different. The debates are not limited to self-adulation and bragging about occasionally obscene capital injections. Heady visions of the future are mixed with a surprisingly clear interest in current flashpoints.
The world is on fire, even for these digital wizards in training: The markets for ideas from Silicon Valley threaten to break away given the excessive data collection by America’s intelligence services. Terrorists are using their once vaunted social networks for perfidious aims and in European capitals people are happy to talk about building a Euro cloud and bloviate about the destruction of the dominant U.S. Internet companies.
The token Europeans attending the conference suddenly feel important. But confronted with the question of how Europe, with its strategy of data separatism, plans to meet the geopolitical challenges and the erratic path of the U.S. government, the Europeans start to stammer embarrassingly. Those listeners don’t appear disappointed, but instead smugly look like their assumptions have been confirmed.