As a tech reporter, I end up going to a lot of conferences. Illustrious figures from science and business gather for panels, keynotes, luncheons, and “fireside chats.” Mostly, they’re just glorified networking events that allow media outlets and trade organizations to score a few headlines and bolster sagging budgets. They must turn a decent profit, too, if the recent surge in soft-focus, personality-driven conferences is any indication: There’s David Kirkpatrick's Techonomy, Jason Calacanis' Launch, and Jason Preston's Dent the Future, to name a few.
It’s only fitting, then, that Tom Friedman—who carries the mantle of “thought-leader”—should want his own confab too.
The New York Times Global Forum: Thomas L. Friedman’s The Next New World, scheduled for June 20, promises to “explore the complex dynamics of new-world infrastructure, especially the transformative electronic, digital and mobile environment,” impart “invaluable insights into strategies for success in today’s new world order,” and answer the question: “What World Are You Living In?” Invitees can attend the one-day forum for the early-bird price of $995.
Why does Friedman feel the need to start a conference of his own? “It’s been a feeling of mine for a while that while we were sleeping, something really big happened over the next decade,” he says, in the site’s introductory video. “That is, while we were focused on 9/11 and the subprime crisis, something really big happened in the plumbing of the world.” (The plumbing is basically the internet.)
“I would argue that in the last ten years, while you were sleeping, the world went from connected to hyperconnected, from interconnected to interdependent,” Friedman continues, over a pulsing soundtrack. “And my view is that this is changing every job, every workplace, every industry, every job. and we’re not talking about it. Yet we’re all living it and feeling it...If you don’t start every day asking, ‘What world am I living in?’ you’re going to get in a lot of trouble.”
Friedman proposes to answer these questions by chatting with a set of white men on subjects including “Threats or Possibilities,” “What Happened to Power?” “What You Don’t Know Is Coming,” and “What Energy Is Going to Be.” If that weren’t enough, the website promises the presence of droves of C-Suite executives, venture capitalists, “content providers,” “hardware manufacturers,” and “service providers.” But it’s still exclusive: You have to “request an invitation” before they’ll let you pay your money.
The whole thing probably could have been created and planned at a much lower cost by the Thomas Friedman Op-Ed Generator. In any case, Friedman probably does have the strongest brand for the Times to build a conference around (a Nick Kristof event would be too depressing; a Ross Douthat one, too stuffy). And I do hope the Times makes a boatload of money off the status-seekers and hobnobbers willing to shell out a grand to show up; the Grey Lady has to do something to support itself, and throwing a pricey ego-fest is certainly better than charging for access to real journalists.
The sad thing about this choice of moneymakers, though, is that if people really wanted to understand what’s been going on for the past ten years—while Friedman was apparently in dreamland—they’d have few better sources than the pages of the Times itself. But now, putting out great journalism just doesn’t pay for itself.