I was supposed to meet Kara Swisher, the Silicon Valley reporter from the Wall Street Journal, for drinks at the Carlyle. Running way late, I called the bar and asked if there was a single woman looking at her watch. Several, the bartender said. But rushing over, I found Kara not, in fact, loitering like a lonely New Yorker; instead, she was in Valley mode, holding court at Bemelmans Bar with an entourage of Internet movers and shakers. Megan Smith, the CEO of PlanetOut, which will be the first gay company to float a public offering. Henry Blodget, the famous analyst at Merrill. Pam Alexander, the P.R. agent to the technology stars. David Kirkpatrick, Fortune's ace technology reporter. In the Internet world, everybody knows everybody. Indeed, everyone is invariably making plans to see one another, and to meet the people they don't know ("Do you know . . . ? Oh, you don't?"), at one or another conference always shortly to be held.
TEDX (for "technology, entertainment, and design" -- and X for its tenth year) was the next one coming up, and with it John Brockman's billionaires' dinner. And although I had no plans or desire to attend either event -- taking a stand against insiderism (and pomposity) -- a few days later I was invited by Pam Alexander to have dinner with Brockman, adman turned dot-commer Jay Chiat, and the television correspondent Forrest Sawyer, who were all going out to TED and the billionaires' dinner. And shortly, I was going, too.
The weather, though, from San Francisco down the coast to Monterrey, where TED is held, turned bad, and it suddenly started to look like Brockman's dinner might be short a few billionaires.
It used to be the millionaires' dinner, but in the enthusiasm of the bull market, Brockman upped it a thousandfold (certainly, among the guests, there were a lot of millionaires -- maybe everyone). Of course, the point is not the billionaires per se but the good fellowship that the idea of proximity to billionaires engenders. Does that fellowship disappear just because some billionaires don't want to take a chance on the weather?
And it isn't as if there are absolutely no billionaires. Nathan Myhrvold is at my table. And Will Hearst is here (I argue that this shouldn't count, but others point out that most of Will Hearst's fortune isn't Hearst money at all but from his work with the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins); and Charles Simonyi, an early Microsoft employee, not the highest-profile billionaire but a billionaire all the same. There just aren't any drop-dead-sexy billionaires.
Over the course of three days, TED showcases experts and pundits and geniuses without clear purpose save for the fact that they are smarter than you.
Of course, cynics might say that not only are there not very many billionaires at the billionaires' dinner but many of the people at the billionaires' dinner are actually writers -- that TED has become the Yaddo of technology conferences. This is not particularly bad for Brockman, who is, after all, a literary agent looking for writers to write books about the technology business. And it is not bad for Pam Alexander, who as a P.R. agent is looking to get her technology clients written about. Likewise, too, there are writers here trying to become billionaires (or some meaningful fraction thereof): Kurt Andersen, for instance, who is about to launch his new cyber company, Powerful Media, and the Wired freelancer David Bennahum, who has just started a venture-capital firm with adman Martin Puris and the recently fired Condé Nast executive Cathy Viscardi Johnson.
Conferences are to the technology business what weddings are to the Godfather movies. This is the time for the extended family to come together, to pay its respects to the dons and capos, and a time for people who want to be associated with the family to come and be introduced. There are the made men of the technology business at ted: Intel's Andy Grove, Kleiner Perkins's John Doerr and Vinod Khosla; MIT Media Lab's Nicholas Negroponte; Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalf; the Norton Utilities' Peter Norton; ICQ developer Yossi Vardi; Adobe's John Warnock; Wais's Brewster Kahle. Of course, there are stars fluttering at the perimeter -- Noah Wyle and Courtney Love are here. And Hollywood tough guys -- Jeff Berg and Mike Ovitz. And the media -- from David Remnick to Norm Pearlstine to Tom Brokaw to Arianna Huffington. Not to mention the waves of dot-commers.
Some people think of Richard Saul Wurman, the impresario who hosts TED, as a sort of Godfather type; but some people think of him as a sort of Fredo, the brother who couldn't make it in New York and had to be shipped off to Vegas. Likewise, Wurman, failing to achieve much respect in New York (even his friends say, "Ricky has a problem in New York"), now receives great obeisance from the digital powers out west for his ability to throw a terrific party.
Billionaires'-dinner host John Brockman is also someone you mention in New York only at a certain peril. While he's among the handful of agents who have managed to consistently pull off major-money deals, he is a perennially awkward fit in the New York media world. He is at once flamboyant and small-time, hip and years out of date; people are always asking what his story is (or trying to recall what the story is -- Brockman's provenance involves Andy Warhol, Marshall McLuhan, and John Cage). Still, through the course of the digital revolution, Brockman is the guy you most often had to deal with if you wanted books about it.
Similarly, Pam Alexander, the third of the TED triumvirate, until recently has had little stature in New York -- two years ago, for instance, Jack O'Dwyer, whose newsletter chronicles the P.R. world, had no idea who she was. But now, partly because she recognized that technology conferences are media (appearing on certain stages and daises, she understood, can be more important than column-inches), she has become the most powerful woman in the technology industry, and among the most powerful people in the P.R. industry (Ogilvy bought her agency a year ago).
In some sense, you might see the three as courtiers moving between city-states, gaining power in this realm, parlaying it in another realm, introducing a figure from one court into another.