The big room at the Grand Hyatt filled up for Clinton. It was part genuine anticipation and part macabre fascination. It was, however, downhill from there. Clinton had obviously been told this was a media audience and assumed, with some striking lack of sophistication, or significant preoccupation, that this meant news media (as though reporters could shell out thousands for a conference). He thereupon lectured these media-conglometeers, investment bankers, securities analysts, and entertainment honchos on the importance of covering unpopular issues like AIDS and Third World debt relief. It was a profound disconnect, and, for this error, as well, no doubt, as for other sins, he received almost no applause.
Then, a day later, it was out to Aspen for the Comedy Arts Festival, where, with Jonathan Weber of The Industry Standard, I was moderating several panels on entertainment and technology. A year ago, when everyone in Hollywood was worried about the dot-com onslaught, it seemed like a no-brainer to bring this subject to the festival. Technology was surely going to transform everything and everyone in the entertainment business.
This year, I thought, we might be in trouble. Indeed, all the dot-com speakers from last year had lost their jobs, while all the old-media people, who had seemed so ready for the ash heap, were still employed ("I felt so out of it last year," said Stu Bloomberg from ABC, who was back this year).
And yet, even with the nasdaq carnage, everyone was bullish about the march of technology. Katzenberg, fresh from TED, spoke about the technological revolution in animation and showed clips from the new DreamWorks film Shrek; he even refused to rule out a future for pop.com, the DreamWorks start-up that fizzled this year (Steve Martin, also on the panel, still seemed rueful about the equity he had been promised in pop.com). Walter Isaacson foresaw a promising world of micro-payments. Jim Barksdale, the former Netscape CEO, now on the board of AOL Time Warner, saw the Internet as home appliance. Rob Glaser, the CEO of Real Networks, who'd been at the Variety conference, didn't give an inch on the promise of the Internet economy (his counterpart, Rob Burgess, at Macromedia, was, however, more measured). Russell Simmons eagerly described his own digital-marketing-convergence plan.
I was the only real downer of the group, repeatedly trying to pose the central question of whether we'd be invited back next year.
Indeed, what I learned from a week on the conference circuit is that doom and gloom may not be such a clearly transformative experience at all -- at least not for the people on the conference circuit. I suppose it makes sense that, even with the passing of the New Economy, there will have been created a new and optimistic class of media and technology leaders, people who, no matter how deep the economy sinks, will stay above it (you've got to figure that with all that money going around, somebody kept something).
In fact, the most frequent subject of conversation at each conference was about how to get to these conferences -- who had what kind of plane, on what financing terms, or who did you know who could give you access to a private and commodious jet. Even people who began the conversation about a certain sort of men and their playthings soon found themselves in a reverie about the pleasures of such transportation (although one astute person I know pointed out that riding on a private plane had the same awkwardness of being a houseguest).
I suppose conferences, and the conference life, might be hurt because the people who want to meet the people above them won't have the dough for the ticket or the trip. But I suspect, too, there will be conferences that thrive solely on people who have reached the other side. The conference class becomes a new sort of horse set or café society.
Conferences are a movable feast, if you've got a Gulfstream share.