Looking For Meaning In The Convention For The Southland Tech Sector

By Matt Welch
The Zone News
September 2000

Protesters weren’t the only ones using puppets to make a point at the Democratic National Convention last month. Los Angeles-based AntEye, a new audio-visual talent scout with headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, employed a human-sized puppet to walk around interviewing politicians, celebrities and even LAPD riot cops for an upcoming webcast.

“The stuff was incredible, the footage is unbelievable,” said AntEye CEO Matti Leshem. “It was a way for us to explore what the puppets could do.”

The company, which has been scouring unsexy corners of the country looking for promising amateur videographers and future news producers, shelled out for booths on the Los Angeles Convention Center’s “Internet Avenue” and “Democracy Row,” parked a live broadcast van outside the Patriotic Hall’s Shadow Convention, and spent the three weeks before the big party cruising up and down the West Coast meeting kids and spreading the word.

“We actually did spend quite a bit of money on it, but I think that it was well worth it,” said Leshem, whose company has now been featured on MSNBC, in New York Newsday, and on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer. It should be noted that AntEye only launched April 15.

“There are not too many opportunities that you have to spend money where it makes real good marketing sense, and you’re actually doing something that is clearly making a difference in the most positive way towards getting people involved in a process that they need to be involved in.”

For Southern California technology companies, the Democratic Convention was many different things: an occasion to sear their URLs on the frontal lobes of an estimated (but never confirmed) 15,000 journalists and 4,300 delegates in attendance; a high-profile atmosphere to show off topical services; a chance to rub elbows with politicos and influence policy; and (perhaps above all) a golden opportunity to advertise L.A. as a legitimate capital of the New Economy.

“I thought L.A. just shined,” said Molly Lavik, executive director of Lawnmower Online-The New Media Roundtable, an Internet publishing and events company in L.A. “I can see people from other places watching and wanting to relocate here and be part of what’s going on in Los Angeles, because...(it) really, really showed Los Angeles as a vibrant, very successful city and center of the heartbeat of the nation.”

Regional boosterism aside, local tech companies’ other aims frequently conflicted, leading to such disconnected scenes as the SBC Communications booth in the Staples Center looking horribly forlorn and neglected...even while the company was successfully wiring more than 10,000 phone and DSL lines and co-hosting a decadent “Lone Star Celebration” for Texas Congressman Martin Frost (whose state is the only one of SBC’s 12 operating areas to accept the company’s argument that it has adequately opened the local-call market up to competition...and is therefore eligible to transmit data across long-distance lines).

Internet Avenue—actually a little corner inside the Convention Center—was a confused mix of tradeshow stands and makeshift office space, where hucksters from would flag down passersby while two nearby reporters from glowered into their laptops.

“We don’t actually want anyone to talk to us,” grumbled Inside’s Ben Berkowitz.

Such confusion was ripe for parody by the national press. The excellent National Journal Convention Daily, produced by the small-circulation Beltway weekly of the same name, disparaged Internet Avenue as “The Boulevard of Broken Sewers.” C-SPAN attempted nightly to interview goateed editors from the overhyped, with predictably painful results. The most popular Internet booth, by far, was, where foot traffic stopped to gawk at whichever celebrity Sam Donaldson was interviewing, from Christie Brinkley to “The Rock.”

Mostly, though, the angle had been fairly well exhausted at the Republican Convention, and the visiting journalists had other distractions besides some alleged “Digital Coast” to contend with.

“The media had three main focuses: the politics inside; the protests outside with the LAPD...and then, ‘Where are all the parties going to be,’” said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, who gave the tech sector “low grades” for getting its message out to a national audience.

“The New York Times and some others had some thoughtful and even-handed pieces about Los Angeles...but some of the media who dredged up the same old tired clichés still don’t have any idea of the technology and New Media developments that have happened here,” Kyser said. “It’s a very complicated story.”

The Democrats, from early Arpanet supporter Al Gore on down, are making substantial efforts to portray themselves as the party of the New Economy. Unlike the Republicans, they managed to stock their convention full of information-packed Palm Pilots, laptop ports, and rows of cable-connected iMacs and PCs.

More important than the gadgets, the party leadership itself is filled with high-tech enthusiasts. The chair of the Democratic National Committee, 39-year-old Joe Andrew, is co-founder of an Indianapolis venture capital firm that invests in biotech companies, and a partner and entrepreneurial services specialist at a corporate law firm that helps clients deal with government agencies.

“Joe Andrew is probably the most tech-oriented chairman the party’s ever had,” said Steve Westly, eBay’s vice president of marketing, and the Democrats’ key fund-raising point man in the Silicon Valley. “He’s the real deal...this guy really gets it.”

Tech entrepreneurs were also cheered by the vice-presidential nomination of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, co-founder of the New Democracy Network, a centrist Democrat club and political action committee that “acts as a political venture capital fund to create a new generation of elected officials eager to lead the U.S. and the world into the 21st century and the Internet Age,” according to the group’s Web site.

Lieberman, the NDN and the Democratic Leadership Council (which he also helped lead) were honored in a private dinner Aug. 15 thrown by TechNet, one of the main Silicon Valley lobbying groups, which also co-sponsored the large post-party for Lieberman after his Aug. 16 speech. Oracle, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association also bought Lieberman dinner that same night.

“The reality is they’re looking for money to raise for their party, but they’re also looking to be branded,” said Jamie Natelson, director of production for the Venice Interactive Community, the five-year-old events group. Natelson, and “lots of folks,” noshed with Lieberman Tuesday night. “The Democrats have been branded as not very good with the economy, (so) they’re looking to be branded as good with the New Economy.”

Natelson, who worked inside the Beltway for nine years primarily as a fund-raising consultant, says she “actually believe(s)” the New Democrat tech shtick. “I know a little bit about Washington, and they were definitely behind. They’re not like the Silicon Valley or the Digital Coast. In Washington they’re way behind the trends, but they’re playing quick and fast catch-up,” she said. “I actually spoke with a representative from the White House (at a Convention party), and he was very excited about the possibilities, and I think they’re open and they’re wanting to listen.”

The platforms of the two major parties, if they mean anything, do not differ significantly in tech-sector matters. Both are mum on Internet sales taxes, though Gore and George W. Bush have both said they will extend the current moratorium. Republicans make a point of opposing taxes on dial-up connections (perhaps in response to the long-circulated and always-groundless Internet rumor that Washington was about to enact secret connection levies), and in general call for more tax cuts than the Democrats.

Both make noises about protecting international copyright law, while keeping a lid somehow on online porn, and the Democrats vow to regulate the corporate collection and sale of data.

Lieberman’s New Democrat Network, which would presumably have some clout in a Gore White House, even has an “e-genda 2.0,” whose fuzzy-sounding core beliefs (e.g. “assert global leadership”) include Silicon Valley-approved policies such as allowing more high-tech immigration visas, investing in education and adopting “responsible fiscal policies to ensure continued economic growth.”

These subtleties may or may not matter to technology behemoths like Microsoft, Oracle, AT&T, America Online and eBay, which have donated millions to both parties. Besides an overall business climate—which neither party is likely to befoul—these companies’ concerns tend toward the specific: Microsoft would like leniency in its anti-trust case; AT&T would like to ease federal regulations which restrains its activities; AOL wants no FCC trouble mucking up its purchase of Time-Warner.

All are simply making sure the party chiefs and junior legislative clerks alike know their views, so no major policy or minor clause bites their butts. Plus, it’s fun to be important.

During the Convention week, New Democratic Network politicians (also known at the “Blue Dogs” in the House of Representatives) feasted at a private fund-raising dinner with AT&T President John Zeglis, GeoCities founder David Bohnett and entertainment executive David Salzman. They were sponsored by Yahoo and Genentech, handed checks from Citigroup, wined by AOL, dined by eBay, and shown around Dodger Stadium by News Corp. (with a little help from Covad Communications). Other sponsors, party-throwers and pocket-stuffers included, the Hollywood Stock Exchange, and every financial services company you’ve ever heard of.

This palm greasing was one of the prime villains outside the Staples Center during Convention week, whether in the “Protest Pit” across the street, or down at the Shadow Convention, or in the middle of a heavily policed march down shuttered Broadway. And while the anarchists baffled many with their fractious demands and revolutionary politics, the campaign-greed theme resonated with at least some of the dot.coms prowling the corridors of power, and not every pretty young thing hit the party circuit.

“We were too busy working,” said AntEye’s Leshem. “The parties aren’t for us—they’re for the fatcat bigwigs.”

Actually, most (or at least many) of those fortunate enough to hold press or delegate passes were too busy working, observing and having fun to catch every Barbara Streisand or John Travolta party...if they were invited at all.

VIC’s Natelson said she was on the job “24/7,” handling technical issues and staffing the community’s large and comfortable Convention Center booth, which offered up computers, e-candies and tea lattes (not to mention copies of The Zone News). “I must say that the chai tea lattes were a big draw to the booth,” she said. Despite the schedule, there was still time for some old-fashioned neck craning. “Mayor Riordan came into our booth, I saw Al Franken walk by and I saw Cokie Roberts walk by. You know, it’s exciting for NPR junkies, though it has nothing to do with VIC.”

“It was an amazing experience,” Natelson continued. “We were centered around 15,000 reporters...and I think we really did create a community environment. People were regulars, they came and checked their Internet, they made phone calls, and we kinda told them about VIC and what we did for the Los Angeles community, and as we are going to grow we wanted to let them know we might be in a community near them soon.”

Other Southland tech boosters were similarly upbeat a week later. Gary Mendoza, government relations chair of the Digital Coast Roundtable, a non-profit Net industry group chaired by Riordan, was especially jazzed by a DCR-co-sponsored economics forum in the Central Library Aug. 11 featuring Earthlink founder Sky Dayton, Amgen Inc. Chair Gordon Binder and real estate tycoon Eli Broad, hosted by business babe Willow Bay and broadcast on CNNfN.

“That was a very good conversation that helped highlight what Los Angeles has going on, and where Los Angeles is heading, and really how this region is continually reinventing itself around changing uses of technology, changing patterns of industrial organizations and relationships, and it was very, very well-received,” said Mendoza, who works at Riordan’s law firm representing Internet companies. “I think that the tech community and the Digital Coast Roundtable had a pretty good convention.”

If that sounds a little different than the antagonistic experience of the 10,000-plus anarchists, riot cops and reporters who growled at each other for four brutally hot days...well, you can always count on Southern Californian techies to look on the bright side.

“Whether you’re for or against the Democrats, it was exciting to be able to host such a global event, and I was proud,” said Lawnmower’s Lavik. “And on a personal note I thought the speeches were riveting, and I cried through most of them.”


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