In describing the Renaissance father of power politics, Niccolo Machiavelli, Carly Fiorina, HP's chairman and CEO, said he was "misunderstood and mistranslated, and taken out of context to this day ... [but] nobody's fool."

Those words may apply equally to Fiorina -- architect of the new HP and the larger, if unfinished, enterprise called the digital renaissance.

Fiorina sketched the second renaissance outlines in a series of speeches in the run up to the 2000 presidential election. She takes to the podium again at the opening of the 18th annual Government Technology Conference West as the 2004 presidential election approaches. While still a work in progress, the sketch has been fleshed out in the intervening years -- with a few surprises along the way.

By way of context, Fiorina contrasted the digital renaissance with its analog predecessor in these terms: "If you had to boil the renaissance down to one sentence, it was the end of the medieval, geocentric universe, the end of humanity's subordinate role, and the freeing of the individual imagination. ... Expressed in one sentence, the digital renaissance is about empowering all individuals by unlocking their richest core asset: a great idea, a great invention, even if they don't own any other assets."

It is exactly the right idea, but the sound bite became fighting words amid conflicting interpretations as the details worked themselves out in Fiorina's increasingly public life. Consider specifically her three most controversial campaigns.

First, Fiorina bet the farm in the HP-Compaq merger because of forces behind the digital renaissance -- the rise of information appliances, always-on IT infrastructure and digitally delivered services -- in which a stand-alone printer maker had a limited future, if it had one at all.

Walter B. Hewlett, son of company co-founder Bill Hewlett, disagreed angrily.

Hewlett is to Fiorina what Roy Disney is to Michael Eisner at Disney -- a dislodged family member who wondered aloud what happened to the magic -- with one important difference.

Hewlett contended that Fiorina was abandoning the much-lauded, egalitarian "HP Way," but Fiorina was ultimately more effective in appealing to the company's little red garage origins with a one-word positioning statement rooted in the digital renaissance: invent.

The second campaign centers on idea ownership as an asset. Her critics contend that her support for digital rights management (DRM), in concert with recording and motion picture lobbies, effectively sells out individuals who aspire to be the men and women of the digital renaissance.

In the original speech, Fiorina argued that in such areas, "the familiar landmarks and guideposts just don't fit anymore. We have to improvise." Given characterization of the idea as an individual's richest core asset, DRM remains the sleeper issue of this decade -- the economic, societal and cultural implications of getting it wrong cannot be overstated.

The third and most recent campaign is that she is the most prominent corporate executive willing to take it on the chin over offshoring. Fiorina's statement on behalf of the technology industry on the movement of jobs overseas is not easily parsed: "There is no job that is America's God-given right anymore. We have to compete for jobs."

Offshoring's most vocal opponents counter that jobs are exported at the cost of that uniquely American invention -- the middle class.

Fiorina's argument for the digital renaissance was also a none-too-subtle critique of what she called "medieval policy," in which government often ends up on the wrong side of history. She got it exactly right in concluding on the eve of an election that "a leader's greatest obligation is to make possible an environment where people's minds and hearts can be inventive, brave, human and strong; where people can aspire to do useful and significant things; where people can aspire to change the world."

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer