The return of tech conferences did not begin with a bang, but a whisper. It was the first day of the Code Conference, and Kara Swisher – one of the most prominent voices in technology criticism – had lost her voice. She welcomed participants back, after a year of covid break in a Marge Simpson rasp.
Swisher has hosted the Code Conference, an annual collection of tech and media moguls, since 2003 (when it was called All Things Digital). Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and other industry leaders have willingly exposed themselves to Swisher’s infamous take-no-prisoners interview on stage. However, Covid paused the Code along with every other technology conference. A year later, it is among the first technology conferences to re-emerge entirely in person and a possible bell for the future of such events.
Not that everything was as usual. At the Beverly Hilton, where the conference took place, everyone’s vaccine card was validated. Thereafter, participants were subjected to a lateral flow -Covid test that involved an uncomfortable nasal stick. (Swisher may have had laryngitis, but participants were assured that no one had Covid.) Everyone had to wear masks indoors. The usual back flap and handshake were replaced by awkward nods and fists as people again adjusted to the company of strangers. In the hotel ballroom, where Swisher interviewed Elon Musk, Marc Benioff and Satya Nadella, people tended to keep their distance and leave empty chairs between them.
If it was the price of being personal again, lots seemed to pay it off. (That means nothing about the actual fare, which is almost $ 10,000. Journalists like me attend for free.) People seemed unusually dressed for a crowd in Silicon Valley, in blazers and business casual. Between sessions, conference attendees tried gourmet cakes and smoothies to order. An “antivirus” mixture with ginger and beetroot was on the menu. Strangers initiated conversations during lunch, shared tables, and exchanged business cards. A technical manager told me he had not come to hear the interviews, but for this, the mix: It had been a long, lonely year meeting on screen.
Much has changed about the world in the last year, and there have been just as many twists and turns about what will or will not “return to normal.” Conferences that made up a market before a $ 15 billion pandemic seemed like one of those things that can disappear or at least fall, undone by the switch to virtual. But Code-goers seemed obligated to keep things, as they always have been, down to the conference poker games after hotel rooms. The only difference was attendance: the conference reduced on-site capacity to 600 this year, down from 800 in 2019, but another 600 people joined the livestream thanks to Code’s first virtual ticket at $ 125 ever.
Conference speakers wondered where the world could go from here (Ari Emmanuel: we should definitely go back to cinemas; Marc Benioff: we should definitely not go back to the office; Elon Musk: we should definitely go to Mars). After a year of massive growth in technology companies, Swisher had invited many guests to talk about why Big Tech needs to be regulated or broken. Two of her more popular guests were Gary Gensler, chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and Margrethe Vestager, the former EU competition commissioner. The conference bags even contained coffee mugs that said “Wu & Khan & Kanter” – a reference to members of the Biden administration’s cartel team.