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04.07.2004

PC Forum

Last month I attended PC Forum, a conference of IT movers and shakers that attempts to answer the question "when 400 CEOs, venture capitalists, and high-powered corporate executives use an open wireless network, does it occur to anyone to encrypt their email?"

Answer correctly and you win an all-expenses paid, five hundred forty day trip to the sun-kissed Arizona pokey.

I confess that I boarded the Phoenix-bound airplane with very little idea of what PC Forum was, not realizing that I was headed to a posh and venerable old conference from the days when 'PC' was a buzzword (it claims to stand for 'personal communication'); not even realizing that Arizona in March didn't require three wool sweaters. I was in the state that Zen masters call "beginner's mind", and that employers outside of academia call "gross negligence". Somewhere over west Texas, my conscience jerked awake and I dug out the thick packet of conference materials, feeling like a secret agent opening sealed orders.

PC Forum, the packet informed me, is a kind of high-end conference for IT executives, senior corporate pooh-bahs, venture capitalists, journalists, and pretty much anyone else who believes that computers will revolutionize the worship of Mammon. The mastermind behind the conference is Esther Dyson, one of those ubiquitous Dysons who are like the Gambino family of computer science, except with fewer rubouts. Dyson is an unassuming, soft-spoken woman with an extremely accurate sense for which side her bread is (thickly) buttered on - the conference itself brings in over $4,000 per balding head, and many of those attending also subscribe to a compact little $800/year newsletter called Release 1.0. Having read an issue of Release 1.0 (an $80 value) I found all the monetizing a little hard to justify, but of course it should have been clear to me that the high prices weren't about cupidity at all - they were functional ($4K a head is an effective gatekeeper), and also served as a sign that I was about to enter a very different subculture.

In my own habitat (the world of hackers, idlers, open source types) information with a price on its head is suspect by definition. The dogma is that truly good stuff should be able to withstand peer review, criticism, and open discussion, none of which are possible when you have to pay money up front. Charging for information indicates you are a some combination of charlatan, self-promoter, or newbie. A Clay Shirky essay may be the nearest hacker-side equivalent to a publication like Release 1.0, and it gives a good illustration of how the hacker subculture works - the essay is published freely, the goal is to disseminate it as widely as possible, and the measure of success is how widely it is able to change the conventional wisdom and set the ground rules for futher discussion. The propagation of new buzzwords, particularly among people who don't understand them, is a handy metric for measuring this success.

Of course, people in this habitat are as motivated by wealth as anyone else, but the financial benefits are a second-order effect. You endeavor to make a name for yourself through ideas, and then you find ways to milk your reputation for money. Like in academia or in the arts, you are supposed to affect disinterest and even a slight distaste about matters financial, while working hard behind the scenes to rake it in, hand over fist. A too-obvious attempt to cash in gets you in trouble - consider Jakob Nielsen, who went from usability guru to object of ridicule in part because he tried too hard to push his paid consulting business.

In the kind of group that attends (and can afford) PC Forum, the calculus is completely different. Ideas and information are a form of capital, and there is an elaborate social and legal infrastructure in place to make sure other people don't swipe that capital away from you. The very phrase "intellectual property" originates from this worldview. The logic is clear - why isolate ideas and data from the mechanisms we use to assign value to everything else in our economy? The market, for this group, is the ultimate reputation system, because getting people to give you money for something is a test of value that you can't fake. Far form being a red flag, a price tag attached to information suggests that such information may be worth buying, or at the very least that the people selling understand how the world works. By that logic, a $4,000 conference is interesting in ways that a $200 conference might not be. And anyone who just gives valuable information away is an idealist, a sucker, or a fool.

This was my first real exposure to the commercial-minded group, and it made for a very interesting conference, particularly given that the theme of this year's conference was "The Big Picture: In Focus". The challenge the conference organizers faced was how to give a roomful of very distractible, high-ego people an illusion of far-reaching vision without actually stepping outside of the worldview of software and computing as a business. It was the exact analogue of the "how to make money in open source" panels you find sometimes at hacker conventions, a way of pretending that you grok the other world without having to let go of any of your favorite assumptions.

Attendees really did want to hear new perspectives and look at the Big Picture, whatever that is, but at the same time everybody in the room had succeeded by being relentless, detail-oriented, highly focused and keeping a close eye on the bottom line. This made for a certain impedance mismatch between the lofty topics and the actual discussion - witness an earnest panel on the transformative power of grassroots politics conducted in front of an audience of major political donors, or a panel on new frontiers in search technology with an almost fetishistic focus on the design and operation of travel sites.

One of the most daring of the talks was on the importance of defaults, where the speaker revealed that people are very much inclined to go with default settings, a revelation software hackers have known about approximately since VisiCalc. Other panels included an amusing exchange between Bruce Schneier and the scowling, oatmeal-brained assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Homeland Security Department, an aimless puff-interview with Google, and a high-spirited moderated discussion about how to solve spam while making sure that people aren't deprived of the chance to hear about valuable opportunities and offers. The conference ended with an interminable dinner talk on the difficulties of philantropy - to quote Esther Dyson, "how do we teach the poor to cook instead of giving them food", which captures the occasional fatuousness of the event nicely.

Just the fact of holding the conference in Scottsdale already lent it a strong dose of unreality. Arriving in Arizona by airplane, you cross hundreds and hundreds of miles of completely barren desert, until suddenly you are descending into a single concentrated valley of suburban developments stretching to the very base of the surrounding cliffs. It feels very much like descending towards the surface of Mars, and then suddenly finding yourself over Glendale, Connecticut instead, except with Mexicans, more swimming pools, and saguaro cactus in place of sugar maple. The entire city is sustained by a combination of fossil groundwater, a large fraction of the Colorado river, and massive collective denial about the wisdom of building large population centers in the desert.

The Fairmont Scottsdale Princess is an oasis in the heart of this strange place, an expansive resort hotel built in Pink High Adobe style, with bekhakied footmen and service staff discreetly creeping along miles of balconies and arcades. The hotel is an absolute palace of luxury, with rooms that could contain most of my post-college apartments, where even the walk-in closet has a walk-in closet. And at the center of it all is an enormous swimming pool, which makes for a fine place to soak if you can suppress the mental image of the thirsty desert trying to penetrate the many yards of protective concrete and suck the pool dry as a raisin.

There's a school of thought about conferences that says all the interesting stuff happens outside the actual sessions, and PC Forum does nothing to disprove it. Admittedly I missed most of the highest-caliber schmoozing, not being a golfer, but the combination of free meals and open wireless meant I got to witness a fair deal of the interesting action. It was fascinating to watch an entire schmoozing ecosystem spontaneously self-assemble at each mealtime, like animals gathering at a watering hole in the savannah.

Of course the large tasty mammals of this ecosystem were the assorted CEOs, venture capitalists, publishers and high-level executives, easy to identify because they were besieged by petitioners, and because they walked around gesturing and muttering like crazy people (one AOL exec sat through an entire lunch next to me talking on his headset). They could be elusive, stampeding off to the golf course at the least pretext, but I also would be elusive if every other single person in attendance wanted a piece of my hide.

Playing the role of jackals, hyenas, and various other scavengers were the journalists from the big websites and newsweeklies. They were not particulary obtrusive and they tended to hover around the edges, but you could tell they were on the alert for signs of weakness and decrepitude. For reasons that baffle me, most of the journalists at PC Forum were men of a single type - bearded, menschy, somewhat pear-shaped, with a vaguely oppressed look about them and a crowd of small children in tow. In the mornings they could be spotted far away, exiled to a breakfast Siberia with their haggard wives and numerous progeny.

Strutting around like those long-legged birds that fearlessly pick insects off the heads of large predators were the countless publicists, most of them frighteningly well-dressed women in tight black pants. They rendered the few real geeks in the crowd completely inchoate with the concentrated power of their social skills. I had never interacted with a publicist before and the experience inspired awe. At one point I had a brief conversation with a publisher and found myself getting an exit interview from his watchful publicist immediately afterwards - did I have a good conversation? Did I get everything I needed? Who was I, exactly? Did I have a card?

The parasite group, the one I clearly belonged to, consisted of a buzzing gnat-like cloud of young, well scrubbed, relentlessly cheerful people desperate for buzz, funding, attention, support, capital, or press for their various projects. To my total astonishment, one of these young cheerful people turned out to be an adult version of a kid I knew from high school, someone who I remember as a tall, gangly soul with a propensity to stare and an unfortunate resemblance to John Denver. My mother used to babysit him, to the great delight of our classmates.

But now there he was, standing before me in the flesh, another foot taller and just as intense, tracking down prospective backers for his revolutionary geolocation software. We chatted for a while and then I watched his towering head slowly recede through the crowd of margarita-drinking conferencegoers, trying to penetrate to the heart of a investor cluster.

I focused instead on penetrating to the bottom of my drink. And then it was off to the whirlpool.

I want to go back every single year.

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