Guessing Why the President was a Dinner Guest in Woodside

Capturing the Moment
Last week, the wizards of Silicon Valley met for dinner at John Doerr’s house in Woodside, two days after the Administration proposed its 2012 fiscal budget, showing increases in spending for the Department of Defense (0.71% more than $549 billion requested last year) and State Department (3.25% more than $49.3 billion last year).

Imagine the setting: Woodside, driving by Bucks, passing private horse paddocks, a pair of Secret Service helicopters overhead and a phalanx on the ground.

Thursday February 17th, VC John Doerr (Kleiner Perkins) played host for a classic Silicon Valley networking dinner: President Barack Obama came to confer with CEOs, Steve Jobs (Apple), Eric Schmidt (Google), John Chambers (CISCO), Art Levinson (Genentech), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Dick Costolo (Twitter), Reed Hastings (Netflix) and LinkedIn), Carol Bartz (Yahoo), Steve Westly (Westly Group) and Stanford's own President John Hennessy.

While they dined, events in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East continued weeks of rewriting the long-accepted norms of diplomacy, politics and cultural punditry. "Arabs" as thinking, feeling people became televised images of heroic dignity, and independence, challenging and ousting the despotism of their rulers. Armies paused to protect their citizens. Notable incidents of carnage and humanitarian exceptions in Cairo's Tahrir ("Liberation") Square and elsewhere were recorded and broadcast instantly through Facebook, Twitter and indigenous and global amateur and professional journalists on the scene.

What follows is a Fictionalization...
I wasn't invited to John Doerr's house that night, and I haven't spoken with anyone who was. Perhaps no one mentioned the social media-enabled revolutions half a world away.

But what if the Woodside dinner conversation went something like this:

Fictional President Barack Obama (POTUS): It's great to be here at the House that John Built with you folks to discuss jobs with Jobs. [Laugh] Seriously, Steve, we've been so concerned, and hope you get well soon, so Michele and our daughters can keep adding iPhone and iPad 5s, 6s and 7s to their birthday Christmas lists. [Laughs, minus Schmidt due to the Android conflict of interest]

Fictional Steve Jobs: Mr. President thanks for giving John [Doerr] a chance to assemble his "dream" dinner table. [Laughs] And thanks for all of your notes and moments of concern and encouragement - they've meant a lot. But we're here to help you and the country. What's on your mind?

Fictional POTUS: Two things: I want your ideas for strengthening the economic recovery by creating the jobs of the future. But I'd like to limit that discussion to an hour. Then, I need to dive into a second topic: help me make the case for shifting federal dollars into social media as a way to reduce and hedge our bets through State Department and Department of Defense.

[Massive recalibration as the dinner guests individually and collectively take in the impact of what POTUS is hinting.]

Fictional John Doerr: Mr. President, do I hear you correctly? Are you suggesting that the stability of the Middle East might be more assured through technology than relying on the traditional: guns, covert ops, trade deals, foreign aid and diplomacy?

Fictional POTUS: You could infer that. You could also infer that with the upcoming budget battle on Capitol Hill, I am looking to invest in assuring redundant Internet access and functionality for the kinds of technologies that proved so pivotal in Egypt and Tunisia. How do I calculate the return on that investment? How do I convey the scale of switching a fraction of the country's large investments in dormant, aging military gadgets and large State Department bureaucracies, to simplify and flatten the access people who see options for change have to self-organize and push change forward in their own national and cultural setting and timeline?

Fictional Eric Schmidt: Mr. President, Google Earth, Mark's Facebook and Dick's Twitter all played a role in the [Egyptian and Tunisian] Revolutions, but without John's [CISCO's] switches staying "ON" the flow of social web traffic can be stopped by a national leader, or worse, used to backtrack "cookies" and "beacons" to find the social media leaders of the uprising threatening to topple their rule.

Fictional Mark Zuckerberg: Eric's right [Schmidt gasps as Facebook agrees with Google, but remember this is fiction!] The social web runs on hardware backbones that are brittle, fragile, and as they are increasingly used for regime change or to stop regime change, will likely become more brittle. We've all discovered a bit of this risk in China.

Fictional POTUS: So you folks would help me enable social media as a leg of American foreign assistance, in exchange for increased Administration support for protecting the Internet against a given country during a given week pulling the plug on its Internet cable? Is that right?

Fictional guests' heads nod, "Great idea, Mr. President."

Fictional POTUS: So how do I sell this approach on The Hill? How do you propose I calculate the return on this investment? What kind of stability would social media more durably enable than military and other traditional options.

Fictional Jamis MacNiven (Owner of Bucks Restaurant, Woodside)): Hi Barack, Hi everybody! I know I'm crashing the party, but after feeding the entire Secret Service detail, they thought you wouldn't mind my bringing desserts - pre-tasted as "security-approved." [Laughs]

Fictional John Doerr: Jamis, pull up a chair. The President's laid out a bold hypothetical, looking at Egypt and Tunisia this week: let social media carry some of the load for Defense and State Departments, to self-enable democracies to form and thrive in place of autocratic regimes.

Fictional John Hennessy: Mr. President, it's real simple. John [looking at Doerr], I need a blackboard. [Ever the antique collector, Jamis leaves and returns with a 1950s-vintage green blackboard and squeaky white chalk]
You just write this equation for Congress: ROI =

  • EFF x Defense{LLF(d) + LLF(f) - Budget} +
  • EFF x State{LLF(d) + LLF(f) - Budget} +
  • EFF x Social Media{LLF(d) + LLF(f) - (Federal Share of Budget)},

where

  • EFF is the effectiveness risk of the investment (how likely it is to succeed)
  • LLF represents the Lives Lived Fully and their GDP potential unleashed (d)omestically and in the (f)oreign country
  • Budget is the budget for the Department or strategy, and
  • Social Media represents the initiative we've been discussing

What's instantly clear from this formula, is that unlike State and Defense Budgets, the Social Media Budget is a public-private partnership, reducing the development and maintenance costs on federal taxpayers!

Fictional POTUS: Jamis, I need to commandeer that blackboard for the Cabinet Room. Rarely, has so much budget saving and stimulus been written so clearly and with such impact. LLF, Lives Lived Fully. Brilliant!

Fictional John Doerr: Jamis, it looks like you brought us double desserts. Congratulations. I think the jobs discussion just got easier, as long as we keep that magic blackboard handy.

 

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