Even in an uncertain economy, this is still the conference season; in the space of a week I’ve been to three.I’d been wondering, naturally, what the mood would be. Should I be embarrassed about going? Would there be massive no-shows and cancellations? New Economy conferences are about rapid and profound economic transformation – would I see this process running in reverse?
Conferences – not mere trade shows but carefully orchestrated gatherings of the media-technology-complex elite (or, at least, the illusion of such an elite) – have been the one undisputed business success of the New Economy. In some sense, conferences are the New Economy. Any conference worth its registration fee can enumerate projects begun, deals made, relationships initiated under its auspices. The technology-P.R. chieftain, Pam Alexander, built her agency, Alexander Ogilvy, on the notion that positioning clients at conferences is at least as important as getting column inches. “Relationships,” she says, “are media.”
Conferences have been the logical extension of, say, Vanity Fair, which tells you about people whom you want to know and suggests your life is lesser for not knowing them. At conferences, through the boom years, you have been able to meet them (this has proved to be a strong business model – not only will people pay for access to their professional betters, but sponsors will pay lots to reach people ambitious enough to want access to their betters). In fact, Tina Brown is holding her own conference, called “Innovators and Navigators,” this week in Santa Barbara featuring many of the usual suspects – from Barry Diller to Michael Bloomberg to Arianna Huffington. Some feel this is a clear sign of a market top.
Kurt Andersen, too, whom I saw on the conference trail (“You could write a column about going to back-to-back conferences the way people write about watching television nonstop for a week,” Kurt offered), is challenging the economic indicators and hosting two conferences of his own in the next few weeks (he’s lowered the price on one of them, indicating that perhaps the top of the market has already passed).
The first conference of the season is Davos, in Switzerland. Davos, a.k.a. the World Economic Forum, began as a gathering of economists and bureaucrats and morphed into a major international media event. There was gloom out of Davos – reports of the decline of the U.S. and the certain rise of Europe – but no indication that the conference itself was suffering. Then there is Sundance – no longer just a film festival, instead an important cultural-media-convergence event.
What I learned from a week on the conference circuit is that doom and gloom may not be such a clearly transformative experience – at least not for the people on the conference circuit.
And then TED, held every year in Monterey, which, by wide agreement, is the most sublime of the conferences. If the conference circuit represents a new meritocratic class, then TED represents the real blue bloods. TED, with its limited seating (although several years ago an auxiliary room was added), is made up less of people who want to meet people than of people who have met one another over the years and become friends. The arrivistes don’t overwhelm the true innovators and navigators (craggy-faced Stewart Brand showing off his pocket knives).
Still, the bubble had burst – and everyone was on social tenterhooks.
The main TED dinner, given by the agent John Brockman, which, in the past, has been called the Billionaires’ Dinner, became, this year, just Brockman’s dinner (there was, though, a discussion of how many billions had been lost by the people at TED – with Jeff Bezos accounting for many of those billions).
But the giddiness of the past few years was replaced not by any sort of panic – more by almost a soulfulness.
The theme or conceit of this year’s conference, first called “Geeks and Geezers,” then “Will and Still,” held that presenters would be under 30 or over 70. Without this necessarily being its intention, TED seemed to illustrate the quick fade of the dot-com culture and the restoration of some more dignified and substantial order. The over-seventies were strong and compelling (among them Frank Gehry, Murray Gell-Mann, George Lang, Jack Lenor Larsen, Marvin Minsky, Eva Zeisel) and the people under 30 (dot-commers and annoying prodigies), shallow and tepid.
It was, people agreed, a kinder and gentler conference, without the money business. It was sort of a reunion of nineties media and technology personalities (from Bezos to James Truman to Martha Stewart to Esther Dyson to Jeffrey Katzenberg). You could see it turning into an old-timers thing.
Another near-nostalgic element of the conference was the knowledge that TED’s impresario, Richard Saul Wurman, has sold a 49 percent interest in TED (by all indications at exactly the top of the market) to Future Network, publishers of the technology magazine Business 2.0, and will sell the rest in two years and be done with it. Of course, underlying the feeling of a possible end to all this was the sense that a lot could happen, or not happen, in two years – TED was looking quite a bit stronger than Business 2.0 at the moment.
Out in the halls, my most affecting conversation at TED was with one of the founders of Napster who, uncertain of his future, has decided to apply to college (entrepreneurial experience, he’s been told, is a plus on an application).
I rushed back from TED (counting the dot-com companies that had lost 90 percent or more of their value on my way to the airport) to go to the Variety conference in New York. The conference had a heavy lineup – Jean-Marie Messier, Rupert Murdoch, Mel Karmazin, and Bill Clinton – but was underattended. This could be a sign of the faltering economy. Or, as likely, it was the result of the pall cast over the event by Crédit Suisse, a co-sponsor, which had pulled out a day before because of the Clinton association (Crédit Suisse managed to seem in the same action both ashamed and shameless).
During a panel on sports stuff, I stepped out of the main hall and spied Murdoch standing alone in the corridor, much smaller than I would have thought, picking at a muffin. After a second of indecision and insecurity, I convinced myself to impose on him and have the kind of one-on-one conversation that conferences are for.
We talked about … conferences.
Davos, Herb Allen’s conference, Esther Dyson’s.
He said he’d always wanted to go to TED. I told him that it had been a great one and described the under-30 and over-70 thing. Murdoch, who is now trying to buy DirectTV and pull off the capstone deal of his career, sighed heavily and said he himself would be 70 in a few weeks. I tried to tell him how great the over-seventies were but realized, too late, that this probably wasn’t something he wanted to be reassured about. Then we talked about who might still be a billionaire at Brockman’s dinner (Murdoch was dubious about several claimants).
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.