The Banality of TechCrunch Disrupt

High-profile event in San Francisco deifying investors, execs, and startups is jargony, insular, and hostile to questions — kind of like a regular day at work.

TechCrunch Disrupt, presented without comment.

Artificial intelligence, as it’s been explained to me in rudimentary form, is about breaking down concepts and tasks into the most basic of elements, so that these can be easily understood and processed by machines. Correct me if I’m wrong.

If you broke down a tech-industry conference into basic parts, you’d come up with the following: Top executives making remarks; plenty of prepared food and drinks; WiFi; new widgets and gadgets; and attendees staring at their screens the whole time. There, I’ve just used artificial intelligence, or AI, to describe TechCrunch Disrupt. which took place last week at Pier 48.

The central theme of the TechCrunch Disrupt show this week in SF was AI, though judging from the come-ons in my inbox, there was also a lot of stuff about cryptocurrencies, of which almost none of us really knows anything about. (Here’s a great breakdown for the bold and daring. But as always, caveat emptor.)

For those sitting through presentations, wandering the halls, and waiting in line for sandwiches, salads, and fancy protein bars, it likely seemed oddly and yet naturally familiar. For all the talk about startups and disruption, the conference mostly resembled a regular office-park job in technology. There’s a badge scan as you come in; free bags of chips, popcorn, and other snacks for the taking; various hang-out nooks to catch up on email and Slack. The physical location, while important in terms of proximity to a tech ecosystem, isn’t the draw. It could be San Francisco or Berlin, but basically you’re stuck inside semi-distracted during a marathon string of meetings.

In 2013 I covered the conference with the assignment to write up what was interesting and newsworthy. Luckily, the speakers did not disappoint. Listening to the main-stage chats over two days this time around, though, I was struck by how much they stuck to business-school boilerplate, a combination of the barely inspirational with the essentially meaningless.

At the same time, several things stood out, and not necessarily because they were brilliant or edifying. Here’s a recap:

  • Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun said there’s no need for high-speed rail in California, since you can already fly between SFO and LAX. That’s an ill-informed view, but it wasn’t the strangest thing that happened while he was on stage. That would be bringing out his dog in a carrier.
  • Sam Altman of Y Combinator, who has flirted with running for governor, said “if there were no opportunity cost” he’d be interested in trying his hand at public service, but right now he’s going to keep doing his thing. For the record, public service does indeed have opportunity costs, unless you’re a Trump.
  • Getting back to AI, the show’s purported theme, take a look at Coursera’s Andrew Ng talking about how artificial intelligence is going to be as transformative as electricity, embedded at left. Ask yourself whether his remarks make as much sense as how Theranos summarized its so-called technology. (Leaving this here: Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes spoke at TechCrunch Disrupt in 2014.)
  • The final chat, which I was expecting to be the most illuminating, was with Uber’s Bozoma Saint John. Instead it was the most cliché-ridden. “Riders and drivers want solutions,” she said. When lobbed a softball about what defines her job as chief branding officer, Saint John didn’t really answer, and talked about being able to “nimbly move.” Given that she’s been brought in to resurrect a toxic brand, you can forgive Saint John for playing it straight and not making headlines. (Maybe part of her job is to say “Oh hell no.” Like C-suite peers, she’s probably thinking a few moves ahead anyway.) Her single applause line came when she was asked to respond to the idea that she was offered the Uber job because she was a black woman: “That pisses me off,” Saint John replied. Here’s a link with her chat.

It’s weird, especially for a costly conference, that there was no opportunity for Q&A from the audience. What’s more, the TechCrunch reporters and editors conducting the on-stage interviews didn’t push back against platitudinal answers, nodding eagerly over their subjects’ product and funding announcements: “That’s amazing, awesome.” The chats took on a whiff of celebratory access journalism. Do backstage photos of reporters and executives hanging out backstage cross the line or not?

We can’t say for sure, because when I reached out repeatedly to TechCrunch about these issues, neither Ned Desmond, COO of TechCrunch, nor Matthew Panzarino, the site’s editor in chief, would respond. It’s easy to understand why they wouldn’t, and I think it’s consistent with the tone of Disrupt. In a spam to the event contact list, Desmond said the SF show is logging record-high numbers with more than 5,000 attendees. (The Frisc went free as press; otherwise the ticket price is $2,995. The quick math is nearly $15 million in revenue just from the gate fees.)

The physical location isn’t the draw. It could be San Francisco or Berlin, but basically you’re stuck inside during a marathon string of meetings.

If the format is successful and growing, why mess with it? If people can schlep to a conference, pretend they’re rubbing elbows with the industry’s A-list, and never miss a beat on what’s going on back at the office — because the office has been replicated for them — then that’s a win-win for TechCrunch and everyone who paid to be there. The press, for its part, trumpets sound bites, startups, and capital raises; the complimentary, make that complementary posts, pictures, and videos are consumed by the broader tech ecosystem. The advertisers, exhibitors, and sponsors are happy; the customer’s silence signals satisfaction.

Perhaps we can understand what’s changed in four years by asking a related question: What has happened in San Francisco? Here in the nucleus of this new economy, there is real fatigue with tech. Venture investing and app-based platforms aren’t helping to address, say, the acute crisis of housing scarcity and affordability. (Some would say they’re making it worse.) At Disrupt, the major critical concerns didn’t come up.

The fatigue could be running both ways. People working now in emerging firms and established companies may have rather sharp memories of the last tech bust … or maybe don’t recall a bust at all. We just know that there’s money to be raised and made, and we sit through every meeting on mute, staring at algorithmically animated screens that won’t reveal the questions that need asking.

So welcome to the machine. Its mantra is “that’s amazing, awesome.”

Follow Anthony Lazarus on Twitter: @Sr_Lazarus