back Tech conferences didn’t start with much fanfare, but rather began with a whispering sound. It was the first day of the Code conference, and Kara Swisher – one of the leading voices in tech criticism – lost her voice. Welcome to attend again, after the Covid hiatus, at Marge Simpson’s rasp.
Swisher has been hosting Code Conference, an annual gathering of tech and media tycoons, since 2003 (when it was called All Things Digital). Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, and other industry leaders willingly subjected themselves to the infamous Swisher interview by not allowing prisoners on stage. However, Covid has paused the code, along with Every other tech conference. A year later, it was among the first tech conferences to re-emerge entirely in person, a potential pioneer for the future of such events.
Not that everything was working as usual. At the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California, where the conference took place, everyone’s vaccine cards were validated. Attendees then underwent a lateral flow Covid test, which included an uncomfortable nasal swab. (Swisher may have had laryngitis, but the attendees were assured that no one had Covid.) Everyone had to wear masks indoors. The usual back clapping and handshake were replaced by awkward gestures and fist shocks, as people once again returned to the company of strangers. In the hotel ballroom, where Swisher interviewed Elon Musk, Mark Benioff, and Satya Nadella, people tended to keep their distance, leaving empty seats between them.
If that’s the price you have to be personally again, many seemed happy to pay. (This means nothing about the actual ticket price, which is roughly $10,000. Reporters like me attend for free.) People looked unusually dressed for a Silicon Valley crowd, in jackets and business casual. Between sessions, conference goers sampled gourmet pastries and made-to-order juices. On the menu was an “antiviral” combination with ginger and beets. Strangers started conversations over lunch, exchanged tables, and exchanged business cards. One tech executive told me he didn’t come for the interviews but for that mingling: It’s been a long, lonely year to meet on screen.
A lot has changed around the world in the past year, and there has been a great deal of concern about what will or will not “get back to normal”. Conferences, which constituted a $15 billion market in the pre-pandemic period, seemed like one of the things that might at least fade or dwindle, undone by the shift to virtual reality. But the code-goers seem committed to keeping things as they have always been, right down to the after-hours hotel room poker games. The only difference was attendance: The conference reduced on-site capacity to 600 this year, down from 800 in 2019, but another 600 people joined via livestream, thanks to Code’s first-ever virtual $125 ticket.
Speakers at the conference speculated where the world might go from here. (Ari Emanuel: We’ll definitely be going back to the cinemas; Marc Benioff: We’re definitely not going back to the office; Elon Musk: We’ll definitely go to Mars.) After a year of explosive growth in tech companies, Swisher invited several guests to talk about why Big Tech was needed. or disassemble it. Two of her most popular guests were Gary Gensler, the chair of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, and Margrethe Vestager, the former European Commissioner for Competition. The conference gift bags even included coffee mugs that read “Wu & Khan & Kanter” – a reference to the members Biden’s antitrust team.