Spy in the House of Business

by Derek Winkler

I've got this job, okay?. Because of this job, I recently got to sit in on a big-time, full-blown business-elite seminar called "The Information Age: Transforming Technology to Strategy", keynote speaker, Nicholas Negroponte. Lunch with Negroponte, at $500 a plate. "Register today," said the faxed invitation, "You'll be in good company." My boss, a wanna-be technocrat, had finagled some kind of contra deal with the Speakers Forum to get us in for free, so I went. As Bill Burroughs once said, wouldn't you?

The Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto is pretty upscale, for Toronto. We're in a large conference room, tucked discreetly at the end of a long kinked hallway. About 120 people in all. Serious men in dark grey conservative suits, here to watch other serious men in similar suits. There are seven women here and fewer than a dozen people under the age of 40, to make a rough guess. We're sitting in comfortable leather chairs behind long tables in neat rows, draped in heavy salmon-coloured linen cloth. The decor consists of pale grey-blue walls, wood panelling, and tasteful green carpeting. It's all very elegant, but there is tension in the air. The initiates, the chosen few, speak together in hushed tones. Latecomers slip quietly in the back and creep across the room like they were sneaking into church. All eyes are turned reverentially toward the front.

The man at the podium is delivering a sermon. The Man himself, Nicholas Negroponte, is graciously favouring us with a brief unscheduled address, as a reward for showing up at eight in the morning for the full seminar instead of just dropping in for the luncheon speech. The gathered biz knobs squirm with delight.

The Man spends about 15 minutes explaining Moore's Law and the reason we can't buy a computer for $199 (the reason being that Intel can't maintain a 50% profit margin doing that). He takes a few eager questions from the audience about how to make money: What's the killer app going to be? Can anyone beat Microsoft? He answers. He departs. Negroponte is a charming and witty man, a most practised speaker, and I suspect his handlers keep him in a box when not in use.

After that brief flurry of unanticipated adulatory activity, the conference returns to its agenda. The moderator is another man in a dark grey suit, but he is neither charming nor witty nor practised. He is the chairman of the Canadian branch of an international management consulting firm, which is hosting this little get together. He makes a few introductory remarks about electronic media and digital information networks being the cornerstones of business enterprise in the near future. You probably know the spiel; Information Superhighway, Brave New World, Real Soon Now, Make.Money.Fast, etcetera etcetera etcetera. 120 heads nod in unison. The first speaker is introduced.

He also wears a dark grey suit, but as accessories he sports a big Sony Bono moustache and an engineering background. He is the only speaker who is not an employee of the host Firm. He kicks off his address with an Albert Einstein joke and promises not to use the words "convergence", "paradigm", or "superhighway" in his talk. I start to think this might not be so bad. The biz audience shuffles nervously. New territory.

"Convergence is a cruel joke," says the speaker, "because it implies things are getting easier to understand. As someone said, if you're not confused, you haven't been paying attention." He compares predicting what technology will do in the future to predicting what an electron will do under the rules of quantum physics, the point being that you can't do it so don't even try. Then, to my everlasting delight, he fires up the slide projector and explains about Schrodinger's cat to an audience of 120 corporate drones. I like this guy.

"There is always uncertainty at a certain level," he concludes. "The growth of the Internet was totally unpredicted. The most important technological advances of the future will also be totally unpredicted." This is not what this audience wants to hear. They want to hear about how to make money with this stuff. Most cults (of personality) play on loneliness with promises of friendship. This cult (of profitability) plays on greed with promises of market share. Cheated, the initiates reward the killjoy with stony silence and cold stares. A bit shaken by this reception, the engineer sits down abruptly and glances nervously from side to side.

Next up is a goofy little promo video with all the visceral appeal of an English-as-a-second-language instruction tape. It features vignettes of various high-tech biz knobs using ever-so-cool pen-based PDA-cum-cell-phones to outmanoeuvre the competition on the corporate battlefield. Cheesy. Very cheesy. But the audience likes it because it has product in it. The biz knobs start to relax a little bit.

The next speaker is the associate director of telecommunications and electronic services with the Firm. He is introduced as an expert on the new paradigm; convergence and the Information Superhighway. The audience sighs with relief and vindication. The presentation is a multimedia extravaganza entitled "Potholes and Washouts on the Information Superhighway." The speaker, a middle-aged bald guy in a grey suit with a Madonna microphone dangling from one ear, trades jokes with his computer-generated co-presenter on a huge video screen. The computer has a snappier delivery.

Schrodinger's cat notwithstanding, this dynamic duo spends the next half-hour predicting exactly where the new technology will go in the future. It seems the Firm conducted a survey of 120 American executives (half of whom were chairpersons, presidents, or CEOs) in the information, communication, and entertainment industries. The Firm asked them what they thought the common folk would want in the way of nice new digital toys. Why they didn't simply ask the common folk is not explained, but it seems obvious from a brainwashing point of view: it must become conventional wisdom that only the opinions of executives matter. The belief that its members possess special status in the universe is a vital one for a cult to instil.

The executives, in their wisdom, feel that what we really want is movies on demand (94% approval), home shopping (89% approval), and on-line video games (89% approval). What we don't want is access to government information and educational services, both of which got little or no executive approval, neither of which (coincidentally) would likely make anybody much money.

The guy sitting next to me has decided I'm taking too many notes. He doesn't think this is so all-fired interesting. Maybe I know something he doesn't. Grimly he flips open his executive notebook and begins to transcribe meaningless statistics. What he doesn't know is that I'm actually jotting down these bon mots. Nevertheless, he occasionally glances over to see how many lines I've written, then looks back at his own pad and writes some more, like a frat brother at a house party, holding up his beer bottle to the next guy's to compare levels of drunkenness.

The survey also asked executives what they thought the key factors for success would be for high-tech companies in the near future. Number one in importance: management vision and marketing skill. A close second: ample financing and business savvy. Distant also-rans: the actual technology itself, and customer support.

This is what the audience wants to hear. To hell with the technology, we've got vision. The speaker gets a hearty round of applause as he descends the podium.

Time for a break. The cell phones come out like samurai swords. Laptops and electronic organizers flip open like desert flowers in a sudden rain. Everyone knows they have only 15 minutes to flaunt their high status toys. Being a modest sort, I keep mine hidden. My aged but faithful laptop stays resolutely in my bag. My bud microphone is clipped discreetly behind my executive nametag, feeding the tape recorder in my breast pocket. I wander to the foyer to mingle.

Out by the coffee machine, two guys are reminiscing about other demo videos they've seen. "You remember that HP video in '89?" "The one about the earthquake?" "No, the one before that." "Oh yeah! That one was way ahead of its time."

I look for the first speaker with the Sonny Bono moustache, hoping to tell him how much I admire a man willing to use metaphors from quantum physics on an audience of MBAs, but he has evidently declined to mingle. The conference resumes.

The third speaker is a founder and senior partner of the strategy consulting division of this Firm. He begins by firing up a good old fashioned overhead projector and slapping down a few blurry, upside-down graphs of Internet growth. He asks how many people in the audience actually use the Net regularly. Fewer than half of the hands in the room creep up. How many have experience designing Web pages or other on-line services? Maybe ten.

I would like to point out that this is supposed to be the advanced keener group, the people willing to haul their butts downtown for an 8:00 a.m. seminar. These are the most technologically aware people their companies could muster. They don't use the technology, but they are true believers in its revenue-generating potential. The schmucks who are just showing up for lunch must be absolutely clueless, and therefore even more vulnerable. This intensive indoctrination is reserved for those who might otherwise have picked up enough first-hand experience to see through the plot. Confession of sin and self- and group-criticism are common methods used by cults to foster recruit insecurities and re-enforce deference to authority.

This last speaker gets off to a good start with this forced confession of ignorance, but he quickly vanishes into a fog of incomprehensible graphs and even more incomprehensible statistics. The gathered faithful fight their MEGO and wonder what's on for lunch. Finally he steps down to polite applause. The moderator gives one last pitch, condensing the wisdom of the morning into one easily digested homily to slap on that report to the boss: Move into the future now, or die.

Time for Q and A. I give you now the universal exchange between the techno-pundit and the seeker-after-corporate-advice. All the questions and answers went exactly like this: Seeker: I want my company to move into the future now. What should I do? Pundit: Just look at the technology and decide what it can do for you. The seeker nods solemnly and sits down again to ponder this wisdom.

Of the lunch itself I will say little, except to note the chill I felt watching 1500 executive heads nod in unison as each tidbit of Negroponte wisdom was given unto them. At one point I tried to explain to the business analyst sitting next to me that his book, Being Digital (on sale in the lobby, naturally), was basically the Man's collected columns from Wired magazine. "What magazine?" the analyst asked.

Meet the people who are deciding for you what you want out of the digital future. They are rubes. They take their instructions from a higher authority, I know not who. They operate on a strictly need-to-know basis, and apparently it is not felt that they need to know much.

But they are moving fast, and in this direction. Watch for them. They mean business.

Copyright 1995
This article first appeared in a slightly different form in FringeWare Digest.
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