The first sign the World Congress was not your typical industry trade show but an extravagant social event was the event's program cover. It was adorned with photos of 31 better-known speakers, including former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Forbes editor in chief Steve Forbes, and Lawrence Ellison and Jim Barksdale, the CEOs of Oracle Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp., respectively.
The see-and-be-seen appeal worked. Some 1,800 captains of technology and technology wannabes from 93 countries attended.
On the program's inside cover, the meeting's raison d'etre was clearly laid out: "Three compelling reasons to attend - world-renowned speakers; a networking-rich environment; and exceptional social/special events."
Like early 20th century elites who augmented their taste for conspicuous consumption with conspicuous leisure activities - mastery of dead languages, exotic dog breeding and the like - modern-day high priests of technology prefer to network in a leisurely atmosphere.
Thorstein Veblen, the turn-of-the-century economist, helps to explain what is going on here. "In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men, it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power," Veblen concluded in 1915.
Today, conspicuous networking is the preferred forum in which technology elites satisfy deep social needs.
First, a large gathering reinforces the networkers' sense of power and prestige. The more the better.
But the networking event itself must be loosely structured to provide ample time and informal settings for participants to casually mingle with one another.
Also, in order to validate their visionary status, the gatherings must avoid all signs of real work, such as the passage of formal resolutions or finding solutions to real world problems.
Unlike professional conferences that customarily focus on specific technical challenges facing a community, networking provides a leisurely setting in which to escape from the real world, a chance to refresh one's standing vis-a-vis peers and savor a rich techno-Pollyanna atmosphere.
An agenda focused on specific public policy questions threatens to consume and channel energy in a predetermined direction. Networking requires a far more fluid environment in which things may or may not happen.
Speakers at the World Congress again and again alluded to a bright future filled with "opportunities," "potentials" and "partnerships." These chants primed the audience for its many scheduled networking opportunities.
Just before the opening day's "networking luncheon," Jeffrey Sachs, an influential economist from Harvard University, challenged the information technology industry to help the poorest of the poor not represented at the World Congress. "Your industry," he said, "can do magnificent things on their behalf."
Before attending that evening's tour of the Library of Congress and social mixing at "Capitol Hill special events," speakers from around the world discussed "world markets and business opportunities."
The next day, the afternoon sessions separating the networking luncheon and "galas at host hotels" were filled with Gorbachev's address, "The Effect of Information Technology on the Re-emergence of Russia," and remarks by Nippon Steel's Azusa Tomiura titled, "Steel as an Information Exploding Industry." No mention here of hot issues on the minds of the masses, such as the fast-approaching year 2000 computer problem and the budding antitrust suits against Microsoft and Intel corporations.
Unlike 19th century Chautauguas and 20th century world fairs, which were designed to inform and educate the masses, conspicuous networking is a grand social event held by and for information technology elites.
In one sense, however, the congress did retain the air of a trade show. Without generous public financing from Washington, the state of Virginia, local economic development agencies and technology vendors, the congress would have been an example of bad economics. Registration fees covered only a fraction of the event's costs.
As computers around the world are linked more and more into electronic networks, our institutions have begun to follow suit. Already, technology elites have begun to shape their social institutions to more exactly ape their machines. Like Marshall McLuhan once remarked: First we fashion our machines, then our machines fashion us.
Ronald Fraser is a data management consultant living in the Washington area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.