By Michael Wolff 3.13.2000
At TED, the new-media version of a Mafia wedding, you rub elbows with the ons and capos of the Internet world and become an instant member of the family.
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?
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.
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.
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.
TED has always been a different order of conference from its notable competitors, Esther Dyson's PC Forum and Stewart Alsop's Agenda. Those conferences are strictly about technology and the technology businesses. They are trade magazines; TED is a kind of upper-middlebrow monthly (cover price $3,000, not including hotel and airfare). In some sense, TED reconceives the idea of a general interest magazine. Over the course of three days, TED exposes you to things you ought to know about; it showcases experts and pundits and geniuses without clear purpose save for the fact that they are smarter than you; and it makes a point of trying to instill, among its wildly wealthy demographic, a little liberal guilt. TED is the Saturday Review, and Richard Saul Wurman is Norman Cousins.
Wurman, in large sweater (he is a round man) and signature scarf, and white hair and beard, has the look of a fifties nonconformist. He is famously eccentric—or despotic. The TED experience, in fact, is as much about Wurman as anything else. He sits on the stage through virtually every presentation; many of them are about Wurman himself—or he is the prop in the presentation. He lectures, whines, philosophizes; at one point, he breaks into tears as he contemplates TED attendees who have died over the past year.
Wurman's real profession is that of book designer and packager (he is a pioneer of the dubious discipline called information architecture), and much of the first day of the conference is devoted to discussing the genesis and importance of a new book that Wurman has produced called Understanding America.
I have been to many conferences, and almost always the speakers are accorded scant attention and the action is in the meeting-and-greeting in the halls. But at TED, the audience members are rapt (afraid, perhaps, that Wurman won't invite them back). Even down in the cheaper simulcast room, the Kool-Aid has a strong effect. The modest number of wisecrackers in the back are routinely hushed. Few people chortle (even silently) when Mike Milken explains that he was moved to go into finance by the Watts riots.
But again, this is not the point.
The point is what's called the takeaway (people even say, "What's your takeaway?"). What do you leave here with? Wurman talks often about the various deals and connections and serendipity and kismet to emerge from teds in the past, and that is one advanced form of takeaway—that you could actually walk out of here on your way to riches. At the same time, the cultural overlay is great enough that the people here "can convince themselves they're not just money grabbing assholes," says an old-media person who is trying to be a new-media person, speaking like an old-media person.
Then, of course, there are the business cards you collect and the acquaintances you make. But even more, there is a way of thinking and talking that you can get your head around here—a kind of acculturation. For instance, it is good to have Wired's Kevin Kelly explaining the Burning Man festival, that gathering of the cyber clan in the Nevada desert, which, although it's arguably passé, a lot of people—civilians—probably don't know too much about. Likewise, it is helpful, vis-à-vis changes in the world's order, to know that while Mike Ovitz is here, he is soliciting rather than being solicited.
From a strictly back-bencher perspective, one vulnerability of the conference seemed to be that the point of view it propounds—the language and analysis and techno-imperialism with which the future is projected—has spread this past year so widely that there isn't much here you couldn't pick up in Time magazine.
But again, that's much too literal.
Personally, I made up with several people I have been warring with. I reconnected with several others who are too busy building and expanding and hiring to hang out. I got praised by many people whom I praised back (or vice versa). And as soon as I spied no more acquaintances or enemies, the extraordinary Pam Alexander was invariably shepherding some other titan or would-be titan into my arms.
On top of that, I got to see some choice signs of the relative repositioning, the delicate power alteration between new media and old.
"Details? Right?" says Jason Calacanis, the Silicon Alley promoter, to the Condé Nast potentate James Truman.
"I left Details six years ago," Truman politely explains.
"So what are you doing now?
"I'm the editorial director of Condé Nast."
"Well, hey, what are you doing about getting Condé Nast online?"
Truman (about whom I have written less-than-flattering things—which I now suddenly regret) and I are seated together at the billionaires' dinner with Nathan Myhrvold (Truman and Myhrvold talk about selling lingerie on the Internet); Wired's Kevin Kelly; and Stewart Brand, whose well and Whole Earth Catalogue, arguably, started all of this.
And while I am not entirely certain, I believe that before the evening is finished, James Truman and I have made a plan to rent a Winnebago together and drive through the Nevada desert to Burning Man at the end of the summer. ■