At Code Conference, billionaires dream of space while the media looks to the stars.
At 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night, at an exclusive resort along the California coast, Elon Musk blew a lot of millionaires’ minds.
Musk is the CEO of two audacious companies, SpaceX and Tesla. He was onstage at Code Conference, a prestigious, invite-only tech event to which tickets cost $6,500 (excluding hotel). The three-day conference is hosted by tech blog Recode at a cliffside resort outside Los Angeles and is attended by startup founders, brand reps, a curated list of reporters, and roving packs of venture capitalists wearing Apple Watches. Attendees exiting the ballroom after Musk’s hourlong session looked dazed. They made explosion gestures at the sides of their head as though the scope of Musk’s ambitions had — boom — set off cerebral rockets from which they may never recover.
The trigger for all this cognitive decimation included Musk’s meditations on Mars (it should be run as a “direct democracy”), neural lace (the next phase of artificial intelligence: a layer inserted in the jugular), and whether our reality is really just a video game simulation (no doubt). “The odds that we’re in base reality is one in billions. Tell me what’s wrong with that argument?” said Musk.
No one did. This was not the room for that. This year’s conference also included talks from Bill and Melinda Gates, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Musk was there to offer a vision of the future and some light intellectual domination — not to be fact-checked by lesser beings.
Code Conference (formerly: D Conferences) is known for operating more like an executive clubhouse than, say, the crowded bazaars of TechCrunch Disrupt or CES. This is where young Mark Zuckerberg sweated through his Illuminati hoodie and where Steve Jobs and Bill Gates sat down together for a joint interview. This year, Obama was rumored to come (he didn’t). Elizabeth Warren came last year. Kim Kardashian appeared at one of Code’s offshoot events.
Recode co-founders Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg are two of the best-known tech journalists in the industry. Swisher is both feared and adored for her quick wit, bullshit detector, and combative interview style, which shines onstage. She generously mentors many reporters (including myself) and encourages them to be aggressive and fearless. Yet Code Conference is a very safe space for the tech elite
Jack Dorsey felt comfortable enough to go onstage wearing a #StayWoke Twitter shirt despite Twitter’s abysmal diversity record. (The shirts were made by Twitter’s black employees group Blackbirds. There was one in every conference swag bag.) Despite the mounting antitrust cases against Google, CEO Sundar Pichai faced only one question about about investigations in the European Union. “It’s a position we feel fortunate to be in — we are very, very popular and users use us a lot,” he said with a smile. Sheryl Sandberg (a friend of Swisher’s) argued that Peter Thiel’s revenge plot on the media won’t get him kicked off the board because it was “independent” of his role at the world’s most influential media distribution platform. Sandberg made it all sound like a well-established, accepted practice; nobody blinked.
That safe cocoon extended even to the conference’s alt-programming track, like the talks from Bill and Melinda Gates about the massive impact that access to contraception has on the lives of women, and from DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matters movement, who joined Dorsey on stage. “Conferences like this don’t reflect the diversity of the country,” Mckesson told the crowd, urging them to diversify the rooms where decisions get made.
He was the first and only African-American speaker onstage that week. Swisher told BuzzFeed News: “[President] Obama had accepted and had planned to come, but the schedule of his trip to Asia changed and made it not possible.”
But back to Musk, whose only actual news was about updated deadlines for SpaceX and Tesla. However, his every utterance was covered like a revelation because, well, he’s Elon. He has successfully risen up from the ranks of piddling software slingers to become a metal-bending, gravity-defying demigod. His crazy ideas about electric vehicles and rockets have proven wildly influential. So if he says he’ll reach escape velocity to Mars before this ruined planet of ours implodes, you listen. And for the people in the room who haven’t shared a hot tub with Musk: *mind-exploding hand-gestures*.
The free booze helped.
When Musk’s private jet was delayed, pushing the session well past its 8 p.m. start time, guests lingered at the catered outdoor dinner, where they were served sweet potato samosas and meatless burgers from Impossible Foods (which has raised $182 million from investors like Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures to make a sustainable global food system). The previous night, a hipster coffee cart set up camp on the balcony, serving complimentary coffee cocktails.
At dinner the first night, there was a confluence of tables with powerful venture capitalists, not unlike Burning Man’s Billionaire’s Row by the beach. Vinod Khosla, Yuri Milner, Bill Gurley, Chamath Palihapitiya, and Jim Breyer could be found, and approached, milling about between sessions as well. The ability to pull from tech’s pantheon is what makes Code Conference so popular with industry insiders and reporters. But it also leads to a clubby environment where sacred principles and outlandish presumptions can go unchallenged. For example: What are the odds that investing in rockets is the best way to save mankind?
Never mind, blastoff....MUCH MORE