University of Texas at Arlington
If you have never been to an Internet World Conference (IWorld), it is one of the premier shows for 'net-based e-commerce and Internet technologies. Sponsored by Mecklermedia, IWorld expos are held monthly all over the globe. Past locales include Germany, France, England, Colombia, Mexico, and Norway, to name a few. Scheduled for 1999 are shows in Israel, Australia, and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Two of its most widely attended shows are held on the east and west coasts of the US. Following the academic calendar, first, in the fall, IWorld sets up shop in Silicon Alley, NY, at the Jacob Javits Center. Then, in the spring, it travels to Silicon Valley, CA, exhibiting at the San Jose Convention Center.
In an "about page" off of its corporate homepage, Mecklermedia describes itself as "a leading source of Internet news, and analysis through its trade shows, print publishing and Web publishing operations." Among its many award winning creations, Mecklermedia is the partnered developer of the websites, internet.com, and webdeveloper.com, and the webbed magazine, Boardwatch. It also publishes the well known print magazine, Internet World.
Like large academic conferences, IWorld's Fall 1998 Expo in NYC was divided among speakers and vendors. As might be expected, IWorld's priorities deviated from academia's. Neither the dozens of invited speakers nor the all-day workshops on new technologies were at the center of the expo. It was the extravagantly layed out vendor's displays that dominated the two main floors of the Javits Center; on an upper floor, keynotes included the CEOs of Oracle, AT&T, Netscape, the CEO/Co-founder of Adobe Systems, and a Ph.D. and director of Sun Microsystem's Science Office. The expo was a week-long affair that cost over $1200 to attend everything, everywhere - although I heard that a business card could get you a free, limited pass to the vendor area.
On the two main levels of the Javits Center, all manner of net-based software and hardware products were shown. Some of the larger companies--Sun, Microsoft, IBM, and Netscape, AT&T --provided additional space for the companies with whom they are partnered. Companies like Silicon Graphics, Inc. had working displays of their servers. The database giant, Lexis-Nexus, had displays of their services and "software solutions." Macromedia was present, showing off some of their newer products, Generator, Fireworks, and Freehand 8. Considering the overwhelming number of products displayed at the Javit's Center, it was easy to get lost. After several hours of screen shots, sound effects, and sales people, I found myself walking aimlessly from one booth to the next. It was at the peak of my daze that I was struck by the ingenuity with which companies lured visitors to their booths.
Close to a dozen companies hired professional spokespeople - which included a couple of magicians and a juggler. These "hired guns" drew crowds easily - what better way to hear about e-commerce than over a card trick! One might assume that this tactic would be limited to the overly ambitious start-ups, but many of the largest companies used it. Furthermore, many of these live acts were coupled with pre-taped, televised portions. Live and pre-taped actors would carry on enthusiastic conversations about a company's products to interested audiences. From large screens that stood behind the short stages on which the live portion of the shows were acted, the pre-taped company avatar would appear to follow his colleague's movements, his head turning from left to right. At first, the use of multi-media seemed obvious--as McLuhan might have said, there was a pronounced "resonant interval" at the juncture of real and virtual. But, after a few performances, the two became one.
At first, I wondered whether the pre-taped portions of the acts had been done to save money. But after all the production costs that would have gone into a professional taping, I started thinking about the words of theorists like Turkle and McLuhan, and about the importance of a 'cyber-ethos' at the show. Considering the audiences that attend IWorld, a spokesperson "on the screen" probably has more ethos than a bunch of actors in RL; but then, a televisual presence isn't enough either. Thinking of McLuhan, televisuality is too cool. An audience could interact within the medium too easily. The televisual does not adequately captivate audiences. But a few "real" actors, and social constraint in the name of politeness is insured. The screen- or tele-based media might generate a more persuasive message over the merely spoken word, but the reminder of RL, hired and acted as it might be, insures a level of comity in their audience members.
Of the many companies that hired actors, Motorola stole the show. Debuting what they called their "Digital Diner," Motorola pushed some of their newest technologies over a simulated cup of coffee in a 50's diner coach car, right in the middle of the convention center. After waiting on line with a couple of dozen "customers," we were finally ushered through a pair of doors by an actor dressed as a state trooper. With his mirrored sunglasses, he had many people duped. In addition to the coffee that Flo told us not to drink, she served several of us plates of plastic burgers and computer chips. When the trooper asked about the specials, Flo directed our attention to a menu of new technologies Motorola had developed. In addition to Flo and the trooper, a pre-taped actor playing the cook was shown on a large tv screen embedded in the far wall of the diner, behind the counter. With a large kitchen behind him for a backdrop, it was easy to mistake the television for a small window through which Flo might yell her orders. Finally, two televisions hanging from the ceiling hosted a pretentious newscaster. Similar to the newscaster on the show, World's Dumbest Criminals, this actor--with his hair puffed up to simulate a toupee no less--would stop the show to give us the technical story behind Motorola's newest products. It all ended with a song and dance: Flo, spinning around, singing about Motorola from a bar seat; the trooper, wiggling his hips, smiling at Flo, a donut in his hand; the cook, banging a wooden spoon against a pot, his eyes closed in deep, rhythmic concentration. When it was over, everyone was quickly ushered through another set of doors to be greeted by Motorola's staff, brochures in hand.
The one session I was able to attend was "Planning for 2008 - The Ten Year Forecast." Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing and author of several books including What Makes People Click: Advertising on the Web, and World Wide Web Marketing, argued that companies should spend more time learning how to "plan to fail." Since the future of the Internet is virtually impossible to predict, companies need to learn how to take chances while predicting the future(s) of our burgeoning Information Age. As an example, Sterne mentioned Qwest. When Qwest is hired to lay fiber in the ground, it lays empty conduit (pipes) alongside it. Why? Qwest is planning for a not-so-distant future when fiber is outdated. Sterne explained light-heartedly , "today's projects are tomorrow's problems." The Y2K issue is a perfect example. Who would have predicted that code from the 1960's would contribute to one of the biggest banes of computing at the turn of the millennium? Companies that plan to fail will be better able to meet the future head on. And, in order to meet that future, Sterne presented several heuristics. First, listen to your kids. How are they using the Internet? Then, use your imagination. Vint Cerf's push for IP addresses on everything from toasters to car tires doesn't seem as strange as it once did. Finally, read science fiction. He recommended Neuromancer and Snow Crash.
Sterne's presentation marked the end of the IWorld conference. While he made his closing comments, the vendor's area was being dismantled. Frankly, the dismantling was relaxing to watch. The conference had been a rather confusing conglomeration of vendors and sessions, and there wasn't anywhere to sit on the two main floors. I heard that over 60,000 people visited the expo. This was my first time at so large an event. I learned a lot about the present state of business on the Internet. I even won a few free t-shirts - not to mention a plastic cheeseburger (my souvenir from Flo at the "Digital Diner") - but I was happy to kick back and rest my feet on Friday evening.
Thank you, Cathy Rentzel and the staff at e2software for the chance to attend the IWorld Conference.