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Those Fabulous Confabs

Smart talk has never been such a valuable commodity. It’s spawned conferences like TED, Davos, and now a slew of upstart competitors. It has made the eighteen‑minute TED lecture a viral online phenomenon. But are we running out of things to say?

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Had any bystanders witnessed the attack on Duncan Davidson late one evening three years ago, they could never have guessed its epochal significance. It was a February night in Long Beach, California, and Davidson was walking to his hotel after a long day of work. West Ocean Boulevard was unusually dark. The streetlights were out. The sidewalks, thickly over-treed, were invisible from the road. As Davidson made his way through the gloom, a man grabbed him from behind and said, “I need your badge right fucking now!”

Dangling from Davidson’s neck was an all-access staff badge for TED, the four-day ideas conference he had been hired to photograph. TED is best known for its eclectic eighteen-minute talks, videos of which often go viral online, and the expensive and clubby annual event where the talks are given. Davidson was also carrying a backpack containing cameras and lenses worth tens of thousands of dollars, but it went ignored. The man squeezed tighter. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will,” he warned.

Davidson thought quickly. At this hour, it would be difficult to notify everyone that a violent, credentialed TED impostor was at large. The attendees included famous people like Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Meg Ryan. Davidson told the mugger he couldn’t give him the pass.

“No, you don’t understand,” the man said. “I’ve got to get in there and meet those people.”

“I made the decision,” Davidson recalls, “that I don’t have arms, but I have legs.” With the guy hanging on his back, Davidson dragged himself toward the street. As they reached the curb, the mugger let go and took off running. From behind, Davidson saw that he was a professional-looking man wearing jeans and a light jacket.

The Long Beach Police Department seemed doubtful of Davidson’s description. “The police kept asking,” Davidson remembers. “They didn’t want to believe it was a well-kept white guy. They really thought it had to be an itinerant or gang type. It was cognitive dissonance.” The attack perplexed Davidson too. This was an attempted identity crime the likes of which the world had never seen—the strong-arm theft of an ideas-conference badge—and he was the first victim. “It’s easy to think that money is the currency of the world,” Davidson says, “but there are other currencies.”

In January, in Davos, Switzerland, global leaders—prime ministers, central bankers, Mick Jagger—gathered for the annual World Economic Forum, the planet’s most high-powered schmoozefest. Simultaneously, in Lake Tahoe, 650 twentysomethings and their fellow travelers were hanging out with Questlove and the president of Georgia at Summit Series, an event focused on networking and social entrepreneurship. And this week, in Long Beach, a more tech-savvy crowd will convene for TED 2012. The high season of the ideas conference is upon us.

At least since the early seventies, when Davos was founded, there have been exclusive gatherings that mix fizzy ideas with major-league networking. The eighties gave rise to Renaissance Weekend, for a largely political crowd; Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley retreat, for media machers; and an early version of TED, for the titans of the converging worlds of (as the organizers had it) Technology, Entertainment, and Design. But recent years have seen a furious proliferation of these status events. There’s PopTech, FOO Camp, the Clinton Global Initiative, Solve for X (Google’s conference for “moonshot thinking”). And beyond the ­higher-profile events, a lengthening tail of gatherings you’ve never heard of like the Feast, Do Lectures, the 99% Conference, and Techonomy. All promise much the same thing: a velvet rope to keep out the attitudinally unwashed, serendipitous interaction, quirky content, and at least the illusion of egalitarian elbow-rubbing. They have their own vocabulary, too. These are “thought-leader gatherings” where “rock stars” emerge from their “silos” to learn about “disruptive” ideas that have been carefully “curated.”

The appeal is complex. For would-be world-savers enthralled by “the power of ideas,” these conferences are a stand-in for “a time when governments did shit, like put people on the moon,” per one curator. For even die-hard technologists, interacting via disembodied avatars gets old, and occasional 3-D mingling is refreshing. For a certain prosperous tier of the citizenry, the conferences serve as a higher-brow Learning Annex. But most simply, these events are about establishing and reinforcing new hierarchies. In a culture where social rank is ever more fluid, an entrepreneur who overnight goes from sleeping under his desk to IPO-ing into a billionaire needs a way to express his new status, stat. “We don’t have castles and noble titles, so how do you indicate you’re part of the elite?” as Andrew Zolli, PopTech’s executive director, puts it.

Thus the rise of a cohort of speakers and attendees who migrate along the same elite social-intellectual trade routes. Throw in Sundance and SXSW and Burning Man, and you get what Michael Hirschorn has called “the clusterfuckoisie,” tweeting at each other as they shuttle between events. This is so exactly the sort of thing that David Brooks lives to break down into one of his fictive comic-sociological characters that, in his latest book, The Social Animal, he describes Davos parties as “rings of interesting and insecure people desperately seeking entry into the realm of the placid and self-satisfied.” But Brooks is himself a leading citizen of the realm, having spoken at TED and, regularly, the Aspen Ideas Festival. For public intellectuals with books and brands to promote, the new conferences are force multipliers, unpaid gigs that offer intangible yields. “Obviously it’s not the money,” Brooks says. “For me, it’s the chance to get out of my political-pundit circle and meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. There are psychic rewards.”


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