The Idea Con: At the $400 Mental Day Spa for Techno-Intellectuals

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the PSFK Conference, a one-day orgy of infotainment mounted by the titular New York consulting firm. Its impressive roster of multinational clients includes companies like BMW, Unicef, Target, Pepsi, and Apple...

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Apr 16 2012, 5:15pm
Justin Gignac at the PSFK Conference

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at the PSFK Conference, a one-day orgy of infotainment mounted by the titular New York consulting firm. Its impressive roster of multinational clients includes companies like BMW, Unicef, Target, Pepsi, and Apple; its promise to attendees was new ideas, inspiration and a bit of awe and wonder. Or, specifically, “robust trend and innovation stimulus.”

I went in wondering how it could possibly be worth spending $395 to watch a series of talks, the likes of which can be viewed for free on YouTube in an unending stream of what I like to call Gee Whiz Moments.

These morsels of brilliance are the durable goods of the Idea-Industrial Economy (IIE), a decade-old market that’s emerged out of conferences like the Aspen Ideas Festival, PopTech, and The Feast. By far the most recognizable player, of course, is TED, or Technology, Entertainment and Design, a global series of conferences that has featured founders, statesmen, thinkers, tinkerers, artists, and captains of industry – among the most brilliant minds on Earth.

The resulting “ideas worth spreading,” as TED’s tagline goes, began hitting YouTube in 2006, and the video lectures have since amassed a hundred million views. Hundreds of independent TEDx conferences have been held around the world. As TED’s founder, Chris Anderson told Charlie Rose in 2008, “When you think of how you could make a difference in the world, with limited resources, one approach is to nurture ideas, to find a way of communicating them and shaping them so that they take on a life of their own.”

The many gestures of TED. Photo montage by Chris O’Coin.

With just a few events in the U.S., PSFK’s profile in the Idea-Industrial Economy is much lower. They don’t even have a Wikipedia page, for instance, and their events draw merely hundreds.

The upside of this, perhaps, is that PSFK is much more affordable than TED, where ticket prices begin at $7,500. And it hasn’t attracted the kind of backlash that TED has. (“The ideas most popular are those that pander to a metaphysical, magical portrayal of the role of technology in the world,” one critic recently wrote of TED in the New Inquiry.) Big idea talks are fun to watch online, but aside from their boosterism of “amazing” technology, they’ve always smacked of excessive self-adulation — a bunch of rich, smart people talking about being rich and smart. So when the first thing I heard upon entering the venue was, “join the journey,” I figured I would be in for a full day of smug mutual admiration.

The first speaker told of a series of life-changing events that have shaped him: living with Eskimos, getting robbed in Costa Rica, living alone in a remote Oregon cabin, composing a painting with a stone he found in a Burmese riverbed. He had lots of stories to tell, so he built a social publishing platform to encourage "Deeper, longer-lasting self-expression,” designed as a “contemplative space, like a church or a forest” to “humanize the web.” He expressed a desire to empower people to visualize beautiful things in order to create a more beautiful world, which my ears interpreted as a hipsterized version of The Secret.

His vision is manifested in a social publishing platform called Cowbird. Cowbird was “neat,” a fun tool for self-expression, but the opening talk left me wondering how so many people were able to convince their bosses to pay for a ticket to an event that merely offered Gee Whiz Moments and general good vibes from chill startup bros.

Vikram Gandhi aka Kumare

I don’t have a lot of experience with conferences. I’d been to a few trade shows and, most recently, South by Southwest, which bore the strongest resemblance to what I was seeing before me. This one was more intellectual though — or, at least intellectualized. The phrase, “sort of,” was bandied about as often as you’d expect to hear “like” among a gaggle of tween girls. “There’s this sort of curation of content that sort of thought leaders can kind of leverage…” and so on. It’s a self-effacement masquerading as deep thought. Yet, the talks kept getting better.

The next speaker represented a company that was attempting to solve post-crisis problems, like unemployment and rising food costs, by providing government aid agencies with data scraped from social networks that might indicate a coming crisis before it occurs. It turns out that the graphs they compiled in real time using Tweets complaining about the price of rice look an awful lot like charts built using expensive studies conducted months or years later.

A man promoting hyper-efficient green living spaces to encourage simpler, happier living. A guy who designs t-shirts that can be purchased for the price of the item depicted on them (all proceeds go to charity). A representative from Microsoft who demonstrates the future of computing, which involves holodeck-style touch-screen displays on every surface, all collecting data to make your life easier. A woman who started a company that sells cute temporary tattoos. A man who created a fake guru character to make a statement about faith and religion. A futurist giving us “inspired nuggets of techno-rapture,” using words like “epiphanize” and phrases like “the beginning of infinity.”

And all this before lunch.

Surrounded by all these bright minds, I half-expected Paul McCartney’s syrupy croon to emerge from the speakers, singing, “You have to admit it’s getting better” during the coffee break between first two “inspiration sessions.” And at that moment, I might have even tapped my foot. After hearing these talks, it at least felt like it’s getting better.

One guy showed a slide that depicted extreme poverty decreasing by shocking percentages. I began to feel a stirring sense of humanist optimism, my cynical heart growing three sizes like Seuss’s Grinch after learning the true meaning of Christmas. By the second coffee break I’d come around to the conference. I was having lots of Gee Whiz Moments. I was having… fun.

Clay Shirky

But still, what real utility can be found in this confab and the rest of the global PowerPoint parade? The hour-long lunch period would suggest that its real value is as a high-powered schmoozefest of the digital elite — a way for thinkers to connect with other thinkers offline. The talks themselves suddenly seemed ancillary.

And yet, maybe there was something powerful hiding amidst the buzzwords and slick slide transitions. The conference ended with a keynote by Clay Shirky, the shiny-headed techno-thinker. He says things that, were they uttered by anyone else, would sound like meaningless jargon. But when Shirky drops “the space in between silly and serious is incredibly important,” I feel like I’ve climbed a Himalayan mountain to meet this guru. Shirky looks at things differently, and with little aphorisms that seem off-the-cuff in their elegance, he’ll make you see them differently too.

Shirky finished, and suddenly the conference was over. I left the venue feeling like things might not just end in a scorched earth apocalypse. The ol’ human race might figure a way out of this pickle just yet.

In centuries past, the elite expressed their superiority with castles, stuffed safari creatures, and sports cars — in other words, “stuff.” Attending a conference like this, one would think that boasting about all that stuff is about as fashionable as owning slaves. The new currency of our bourgeoisie is cultural innovation and creativity. And while all the back-slapping can be grating, how can these Gee Whiz Moments, these bursts of feel-good analysis of the future, be seen as anything but an improvement in the long term?

Think of PSFK and other confabs as massive day spas for the techno-soul — summer-camps for the wintry screen-addled tedium of jobs at media companies and advertising agencies and startup incubators — and they start to make sense. They give one the sense that the churning capitalist machine might not be all bad, that humanity isn’t doomed to perpetuate its cruelties, that yes, you do have to admit it’s getting better, if you think about it, kinda.

Sketches from PSFK Con by FiftyThree

Unlike elite social gatherings of decades past, the focus is not, “How can we stay on top?” but “How can we make better, buy better, connect better and be better – and share those ideas with others such that the world becomes a better place – bringing everyone who isn’t here up to our level?” It feels exclusive, but it’s egalitarian in philosophy. At its worst, the conference might be a bit of a wankfest, an excuse to indulge in techno-rapturous delusion and distract from signs of global doom: pollution shrinking polar bear genitals, toxic garbage islands, global economic fallout, etc.

But some of these folks really are making life better, and not just for the already-privileged. I’d take a tiny bit of world improvement with a side of glad handing over the pointless, ostentatious galas of yore that only served to solidify the bonds between, and thus the status of, its attendees.

Does any serious education happen at these conferences? Can creative inspiration be commoditized? Will a phone’s worth of apps save the world? Sadly no. But certainly there are less noble ways to spend $395. If it makes you feel good about the world, even if only for an afternoon, offering some brief respite from the fire hose of pessimism and misery the rest of life shoots at your chest all day every day, well, gee whiz, why not?

Images courtesy of Catalina Kulczar-Marin