Gordon Crovitz once again caught my attention this morning with his column on why we still crave face-to-face interaction in the twittering new world of digital deal-making and dating. Writing from the "D: All Things Digital" conference in Carlsbad, California, Crovitz quotes several conference veterans on why we still travel to meet people:
Esther Dyson of EDventures, one of the conference attendees, was a pioneer of tech industry conferences such as PC Forum. Asked why even techies flock to conferences, she said that they "want to hear the unofficial story, rather than the sanitized press releases and corporate blogs that they get online." Andrew Zolli, who helps run the Pop!Tech conference, says that these kinds of conferences "are best viewed as 'rituals' in which a self-selected group of people reaffirms their 'tribal identity' through the very act of participation."
Modern tribes have their business purposes. Forrester Research estimates that some two-thirds of senior executives go to industry conferences, to learn about new products and services but also to meet one another.
The business-to-business trade publishers belonging to American Business Media last year for the first time generated more revenue (over $11 billion) from face-to-face meetings than from traditional print operations. Association president Gordon Hughes says, "It's kind of like online dating. At some point you just have to meet the person in person."
I also spent last week with actual homo sapiens at the 12th annual Gilder/Forbes Telecosm conference. Of course, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, as I sat stranded on the tarmac at Indianapolis International Airport, I was wishing the conference had been held by teleconference. I'd left New York at 8 a.m. Friday and, blocked for most of the day by Midwestern storms, didn't arrive home until 2 a.m. Saturday. This included around six hours in Albany, four hours at O'Hare, and four hours spent in planes on runways. So as huge luggage carts tumbled like legos across the tarmac at 12:30 a.m. and the wings of our plane, just 20 feet from the gate, flapped like a bird in tornado-force winds, preventing us from completing the long day's journey, I thought: Please, Telepresence, take me away from this hell we call air travel.
But then I maybe would not have spent all those hours at the Albany Airport exhausting seemingly every technological and economic topic with Hal Bennett, the CEO of Lightwave Logic, a small company with a potentially revolutionary polymer-based optical material that could allow radically cheaper optical computing and networking.
And I may not have been able to hang out with Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, who gave a wonderful retrospective on information networks, and, at the other end of the spectrum, a young genius in 3D graphics and ultrabroadband content named Jules Urbach.
Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, graphics pioneer Jules Urbach, and me.
On the other hand, the very technologies Urbach is deploying by exploiting the massive parallelism of graphics processors, could one day allow virtual social interactions that seem absolutely real. I guess that's what we used to call virtual reality when it was many decades off. Now it appears to be within our grasp inside the next decade.
I don't know whether it will actually reduce air travel and save us late-night tarmac adventures, as many have been saying for so long, but Metcalfe's Law of social networking and Jules' vision of new virtual worlds were in full physical manifestation at Telecosm on Lake George, New York, last week.
While we're thinking business conferences, don't forget to sign up for the best technology policy conference around -- PFF's 14th annual Aspen Summit, this year August 17-19.