Woman on the Moon: A Beltway insider's take on Brainstorm's innovators

July 26, 2013: 12:34 PM ET

What I learned from some of the smartest thinkers in America.

By Nina Easton, senior editor

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FORTUNE -- Silicon Valley club members love to extol the virtues of dynamic disruption. I live in the valley of dynamic dysfunction: Washington D.C.

In his New York Times best-seller, This Town, Mark Leibovich chronicles the capital as preening and self-interested -- as opposed to focused on the public good -- and obsessed with cashing in on power. I have a more pedestrian take: D.C. is a town of high-noon brawls by small-minded cowboys, staring an unending movie reel of threatened government shutdowns, filibusters and deadlocks over immigration and education reform (and those were just this past week's headlines).

So imagine my relief when Fortune editors invited me to moderate at this week's Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. -- an escapist opportunity to see what innovative, forward-looking brains are thinking. Apparently these same editors weren't aware that I'd recently been publicly called out -- and humiliated -- by FaceBook's (FB) global public policy VP (in front of millennials no less) for rarely using my account. They couldn't foresee that when one of my panelists complained about those people who "view social media as check-the-box" -- indifferent and infrequent Tweeters, for instance -- I would cringe, knowing I that was one of "them."

But the fact remains that most of us are part of the great sea of "them," so being a translator can be a useful role. With that in mind, I humbly offer my woman-on-the-moon take on this week's conference:

-- There is no bigger culture divide in this country than the one between S.V. and D.C. Can you imagine members of Congress embracing an ethos that claims radical, disruptive change is good? That you need to "innovate or die?" That bold vision and ignoring your detractors wins the day? Still, it's troubling that so many of our great innovators remain focused on speed-building billion-dollar enterprises that make relatively affluent people happy -- social media games, new delivery forms for entertainment, more fun ways to shop and travel. If that's your business, even a non-dysfunctional Washington looks pretty bleak by comparison -- wrestling with solutions to a $16 trillion debt, 12 million illegal residents, and 11.8 million people still out of work.

-- Apparently, I should not have been screaming at my teenage son when he was glued to Halo on his Xbox, loudly exchanging expletives with other gamers. I should have been embracing Microsoft's (MSFT) vision. The company's Xbox division has ambitions to become your new cable box, setting up a Santa Monica production studio and partnering with Stephen Spielberg on a Halo show. Don't sneer. You probably once thought Netflix (NFLX) was a video rental service -- not an Emmy-grabbing producer.

-- Speaking of Netflix, its success with House of Cards clearly surprised even this visionary crowd, with lots of bets made over whether this was beginners luck and push-back by at least one network exec pointing out that, for all the buzz, the show's audience was a fraction of theirs. But anyone who makes a living off traditional TV better hold on tight: You're riding a tiger, and 2013 is a pivotal year. The other player making a big impression on this group: Amazon (AMZN). Apparently selling books and diapers wasn't good enough. Now, with just a click, we can TV-binge on our favorite shows. (Confession: I've been binging on "Ally McBeal" episodes for months—try them; they hold up well.)

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-- It gets even worse for all you in cable and broadcast: cord cutting is a real phenomenon. Yes, when a 23-year-old friend borrowed my house -- and exhibited zero-interest in knowing how to work our too-complicated TV -- it turns out she wasn't alone. She simply flipped open her Mac, asked for our wireless code and downloaded all the entertainment she wanted for free and without ads. Cord cutters aren't the only disruptors in TV, though. The real skunk at Brainstorm Tech was Chet Kanojia, CEO of Aereo, who will essentially rent you a two-inch antennae in a remote location that can collect all the broadcast TV you want -- which you can supplement with, say, Amazon, or an Xbox, as needed. I don't know which I hate most -- $150 cable bills or complicated, multi-remote TVs. Somehow I don't think I'm alone. Even today, 21% of TV viewers don't pay cable or satellite bills; more tellingly, neither do 50% of Netflix subscribers.

Oh -- and did I mention that millennials will be watching TV and movies and concerts on their mobile phones, anyways?

-- Cold calling is dead. (Yay!) Whether you're a job-hunter, a company searching for talent, or a salesman, social media enables you to cull deep knowledge about your target. There no excuse for "a cold call versus a warm handshake," as LinkedIn's (LNKD) Deep Nishar put it. But here's the catch, as cybersecurity sleuth Kevin Mandia reminds us, Chinese hackers are onto this game too. So expect a "warm-handshake" version of malware when Shanghai hackers use personal details from your FaceBook, say, to convince you to open a nefarious attachment.

-- Once upon a time, pre-Great Recession, we bought too much stuff. Clutter collected. So we swarmed places like the Container Store. Now the clutter is in big data—information being produced in everything from telecom to sensors on tractors. All this random information needs to be sorted to be useful, like Elfa systems separating your socks from your underwear. Venture capitalists are taking note. "There's a land grab going on" for companies building data systems, a telecom exec tells me.

-- Ever heard of "PewDie Pie?" Of course not. But the Swedish video game commentator is a YouTube sensation, mobbed by thousands of fans on a recent visit to Singapore. And he's not the only "artist" finding massive commercial success on YouTube. As my colleague Miguel Helft notes, people snickered when Google (GOOG) bought what seemed like a platform for stupid pet tricks and cute baby antics. Now it's a major commercial platform for artists and "artists". Again, never say never.

-- "How many people in this room have used Uber?" Not surprisingly, when asked that question, most Brainstormers raised their hands as satisfied customers of the 4-year-old start-up car service. I wondered how many hands would shoot up if asked who had been inside a Wal-Mart (WMT) in the past 30 days. (Even so, Wal-Mart execs, who oversee a workforce third in size only to the Pentagon and the Chinese Army, gamely gave their pitch for their $10 billion e-commerce operation.) There is a disconnect between high-end-technology makers and, well, real people. Some elite products -- think smart phones or mini-mall sushi -- have a way of moving down the food chain. Maybe its less pricey cousin Lyft will do the same. But somehow I can't picture a Wal-Mart cashier waiting on her Uber Lincoln Town Car to show up.

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-- Tech's great minds are also very focused on making shopping more fun. Thrillist offers cool ideas to guys on everything from bar-hopping to gadgets, and then sells you that cool stuff. Wanelo (for Want Need Love) has turned shopping into a social media venture -- you can follow people and their favorite products and ... buy cool stuff. Birchbox, which delivers monthly samples of beauty products, is determined to crack the $40 billion beauty industry by helping customers "discover" -- not just replenish -- new products.

-- Travel should be more fun, too. The winner of Brainstorm's Startup Idol contest was a pair of brothers who are figuring out how to connect tourists with local tour guides abroad for a richer travel experience. AnyRoad was the runaway hit with the judges.

-- Despite all this entertainment and shopping and travel, apparently we still aren't happy enough. While AnyRoad won the idol contest, the most vivacious presenter was Nataly Kogan, co-founder of a Boston-based site called Happier, which enables followers to share small moments of happiness to enrich their lives, offer comfort, and keep a positive attitude. I loved Happier's orange logos. I loved Kogan's orange heels. (Orange must test as a happy color.) Most of all, I loved her optimism in her mission. My mood elevated just listening to her.

Now that I'm back inside the Beltway, my own mission is to download Kogan's app and show it off on Capitol Hill. I'm hoping Harry Reid and John Boehner can share some special moments together. Never say never.

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