And the winner is ...

In this pageant, the runway is the intersection of technology, the marketplace, and public policy

2003'S CHIEF disruptive technologist is a) Jack Valenti, b) Attorney General John Ashcroft, or c) Rob Lowe. OK, Rob Lowe is a bit harsh, letting a little thing such as his career get in the way of my fantasy alternate universe where Democrats roam the West Wing and Florida never happened.

But Valenti and Ashcroft are all too real. As head of the Motion Picture Association, Valenti has led the effort to criminalize fair use sharing and prop up the entertainment industry's fading business model. He has retarded the adoption of peer-to-peer decentralized technologies, advanced the DRM (digital rights management) lock-in strategy that proved unworkable in software copyright protection, and seeded draconian legislation that favors legacy stakeholders at the expense of emerging business models.

The attorney general has done his part to disrupt the IT revolution, opting out of individual liberties and into disbanding the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). According to the Washington Post, Ashcroft's Department of Justice cited the Sept. 11 attacks in justifying a directive sent to federal FOIA officers.

"When you carefully consider FOIA requests and decide to withhold records, in whole or in part," the Post quotes the memo as saying, "you can be assured that the Department of Justice will defend your decisions." To Justice, it's a prudent step to avoid interference in anti-terrorism investigations. To Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, it's the digital equivalent of Just Say No to congressional oversight of federal law enforcement.

As Ashcroft's deconstruction of the Bill of Rights gathers steam on Capitol Hill, Wi-Fi is coming under similar attack across the Potomac at the Pentagon. As InfoWorld reported, the Department of Defense is worried about possible interference between military radar systems and 5GHz frequencies in the 802.11a range, not the 2.4GHz range used by 802.11b devices.

But before we get too caught up in the negative connotation and consequences of disruptive technologies, let's not forget the other side of these double-edged swords. I consider Wi-Fi the No. 1 disruptive technology, not just for its incendiary growth and liberating use of unlicensed spectrum but also for its profound symbiotic relationship with other disruptive forces.

Take Weblogs, please. Wi-Fi hot spots have turned conferences into virtual events, coffee shops into digital potbellied stoves, and the workplace into one large decentralized water cooler conversation. Trent Lott didn't survive his Sturm und Drang, thanks in part to the bloggers who kept the story alive until the Beltway media caught on.

In turn, blogs have nurtured a growing circle of trust, the mulch for building directories of digital identity based on expertise, communication skills, and critical intangibles -- sense of humor, ethical infrastructure, shared values, and contributed resources. Weblogs provide a variety of Web services for the community: a kind of protective gauze for standards warriors, viral marketing for independent developers, and a watchdog mechanism for legacy media.

In this alternative universe, the chief disruptive technologist is a) Dave Winer, b) Tim O'Reilly, or c) Bill Gates? All have put their money where their mouth is: Winer by contributing SOAP and Scripting News; O'Reilly by donating 200 book titles to the Creative Commons licensing model; and Gates by embedding TCP/IP, XML, and now Wi-Fi.

But the unifying investment for all three candidates is time. When Scripting News went off the air six months ago, it seemed to many of us that time stood still. Only when Dave resurfaced to announce life-saving bypass surgery did we realize how lucky he -- and we -- were. Opinionated, volatile, blunt, and disruptive, Dave Winer is an American original. Ironically, and unlike Internet Explorer, if you take him out of the operating system, it does stop running.

Tim O'Reilly leads by example, proving that good works can also be good business. He's provided orbital velocity to so many disruptive wellsprings -- open source, the Mac, peer-to-peer, to name just the obvious. And he's offered airtime, if you will, to some of the great voices of the digital age -- Clay Shirky, Larry Lessig, our own Jon Udell, and others. Recently, he open-sourced discussions from his internal editors mailing list, a fascinating window on his -- and our -- agenda.

Just as disruptive technologies emerge in concert with one another, so do disruptive technologists. Bill Gates is the only guy in America actually making money, but when it comes to managing disruptive technologies, he's had to be a very patient man. Try as he might -- and has -- he can't just tell the carriers to integrate their 3G investments with Wi-Fi.

He has to horse-trade with Hollywood to gain access to content. Caving in to the record companies over DRM seems an odd choice for someone who captured Office's dominant position largely by abandoning copy protection.

At Comdex, Bill didn't utter the "d" word once, not onstage at least. But if you listened carefully, it was there -- resting between the lines of his keynote. Then, at the end, there was SPOT -- Smart Personal Object Technology.

The demo was bizarre -- an intelligent clock radio, kitchen magnets, key chains, and this: "We've made a lot more breakthroughs on this than we'd expected to, and we're very amazed that it hasn't even been subject to a rumor."

As SPOT's Bill Mitchell finished the presentation, Gates asked this question: "Now, these devices are connected?"

"Yes, they are," Mitchell said. "They're wirelessly connected, and we'll talk more about that at CES."

Next week: What Microsoft's chief disruptive technologist says at CES.