Le Professionnal 07/06/2010Posted by brendan in Bienvenue à la Semaine de Fonctionnement.
Tags: conference, france, journalism, la cantine, paris, passage montmartre, tech, techcrunch
The European branch of technology giant TechCrunch was hosting an event and, after some gentle coercion on the part of Keith, I contacted organizers to receive my press accreditation.
I have never bothered to keep up with what was happening in the wonderful digital world was weighing heavily on my mind. How could I represent an industry magazine while not understanding the basic vocabulary of the conference? Did I have to bring my computer? If I showed up with a notebook they would probably expel me from the building, so I packed my laptop in a bubble mailer and repeatedly checked directions to the venue.
Passage Montmartre survived the destruction of Baron Haussmann’s redevelopment schemes. A movement to create these shopping arcades was in swing by the end of the 19th century, with around 150 various skylit walkways established within fifty years. Not many remain and most are now populated by expensive boutiques and renovated with the money that follows. Montmartre looks a little neglected, reminiscent of the crumbling, dark corridors I’d seen in Osaka.
A tech business association called Silicon Sentier had founded La Cantine as a hub for the Parisian internet community. The place was bustling with smartly dressed and chattering people. One of the few women present was working the door and asked my name in an English accent.
“Oh, hello! We’re so excited to have you!”
Sheets of printer labels were laid out on a couple folding tables, surrounded by eager participants. I found my name and affiliation– TechCrunch was clearly not at the level of MacWorld or Le Web quite yet. I tried to display as prominently as seemed appropriate.
A video camera had been affixed to a pillar by electrical tape and electronics cables littered the floor screaming lawsuit. Everyone was playing with their iPhones and Blackberrys while I connected to the local wifi. The man next to me struck up conversation which quickly turned to Wired. What’s the name of the editor who just published his book? I knew that the editor of Wired had recently been criticized for plagiarizing portions of his book, but had never bothered to remember any names. Someone a row up swiveled in his seat and saved me from a steady stream of ‘um’ and I felt exposed as a fraud.
It’s like the late 90’s had never happened. Mike Butcher, editor of TechCrunch Europe, introduced the event with the enthusiasm of a sports commentator. Speakers all performed variations of the same success story, revealing the boneheaded mistakes which any student of basic business principals or common sense would have avoided. The more obviously geeky the speaker the more outrageous their company’s flaws. No one suffered from not understanding the technology but everyone suffered from not understanding people.
There was a woman’s panel, moderated by the newly appointed head of a resurrected French language TechCrunch. She watched in horror as her four participants, one of whom was male, completely failed to speak with any authority or act empowered in any way. A young woman who created her own company must have been assertive enough to found her own business. I asked if there were any associations in Paris dedicated to teaching girls about tech and encouraging them to enter the field.
“I don’t know. I’m not a feminist.”
I fell back in my chair and watched the confused computer apes ask idiotic questions. Clearly sexual integration is still an issue in these parts. The lone male on the panel discussed his fashion website.
La Cantine has a bar and espresso machine. People were lining up to order and people were paying after ordering. Really? I stood in the passage only to be accosted by strangers. The guy who runs a business mining eyewitnesses for news reports introduced me to the guy who developed a new social networking service who introduced me to the guy who was seven feet tall and talking about things I didn’t understand. Everyone spoke English.
During the financial panel it was determined that English is the language of the internet. It was also determined that the state of tech in Paris was strong, news that elicited cheers. Investors are investing, entrepreneurs are enterprising, business is growing.
Upstart companies took turns pitching their business plans. This was the real reason most people had paid to be here, to see what was coming down the pipe, to see what might be worth investing in. There were sites that borrowed from other ideas, there were clumsy pitches, bad theatrics and janky presentations. Few of the companies had entirely fresh ideas and all of them were consumer oriented. Maybe the people who design software meet somewhere else?
The conference ended with an invitation to free drinks. As I hadn’t eaten I should have paid more attention to the sandwiches and pita available but I had been snared in the passage by eager beavers who hunted me down in the crowd. Business cards were handed to me, terms I didn’t understand whizzed over my head. A couple Americans representing one company clustered with me off to the side where we talked about being American in between talking shop. One of them got me another drink. They both handed me cards. They seemed nice enough but I knew my little printer label name-tag was pretty alluring. The beer and wine and sandwiches disappeared and Butcher lead everyone to the nearest bar. I hid in the bathroom until they were all gone before catching the métro home.