I would have loved to have delivered this story in smaller, more in-depth parcels, but this is what we’ve got.
It’s been too long since I’ve posted here. I fell prey to the Catch-22 of travel writing: when there is something going on worth writing about there isn’t enough time to write it. This has been the way things have been on this blog for the past few years. It basically the personal diary of someone traveling the world trying to learn as much as possible about what’s going on. It’s a decent story but one that’s proved challenging to keep up with in the torrents of articles to file, books to finish, docs to make.
I left this narrative off in Moscow Sheremetyevo airport, and I have to mention that it was not intentional how I was talking about how people tend to disappear in that place … and then disappeared from blogging for a month. I actually didn’t fall into the Sheremetyevo vortex — I went to Armenia instead. I did my thing at the World Congress of Information Technology (WCIT), which is touted as the world’s largest such conference.
I go to conferences about the topics that I cover fairly regularly. Oftentimes, I’m paid to be a speaker. Sometimes, I’m just there to meet and interview people who operate in my areas of focus. Basically, you go off to somewhere and hang out with people who are interested in the same things you are — a well-delineated social ring that we can step into and become big shots.
I do favorites
I do favorites for no other reason than it makes for polite conversation. So when someone asks, “What is your favorite country,” I have an answer. Saying things like, “I don’t do favorites” doesn’t make you look sophisticated. It makes you look like a difficult to converse with prick.
That said, Armenia is one of my favorite countries. It’s a beautiful place with perfect weather with engaging people who like to eat big hunks of animal at the historic crossroads of planet earth. It’s not really where the proverbial It is at but it’s where I want to be. So when the invite came in to cover a big tech conference there last month I jumped on it.
The other center
Decentralization was the theme of Armenia’s WCIT — how the world is evolving towards a network of dozens of high-tech hubs which blanket the world rather than everything being developed in one or two super hubs — like Shenzhen or Silicon Valley. This is a lifeline for countries like Armenia, granting them a sudden bid for relevance and a much needed way forward. WCIT coming to this little landlocked country nestled within the bosom of unfriendly neighbors was the biggest thing that’s happened there since the revolution — the city of Yerevan was mobilized and no expense was spared in making it a national-level event.
But not everyone was so pleased.
It was 7 am and I was standing by the vans that were designated to take us out to the conference hall. An older lady with a ziplock bag of documents, a toothbrush, a half-used thing of toothpaste, and a nub of soap — the get-up that they hand you when you’re released from jail or a mental institution. She was chattering at me aggressively in Russian.
“Do you speak English?”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
She kept talking in Russian so I turned to walk away. As soon as I did so she flipped into fluent English.
“There is no center of the universe,” she roared. “The universe is not round or square and there is no center. Artificial intelligence, what you are creating, goes against the will of God and what you are creating will destroy the universe! But before it destroys the universe it will destroy you!”
I agreed with her.
The conference life
I usually have little interest in what anyone says up on stage at these events. Men in suits go up and talk PC nonsense. Nobody really says anything. (Maybe I can include myself in this too when I morph into “man-in-suit.) So I usually look to make connections — i.e. friends — on the sidelines. Often, I’m looking for a partner in crime: someone who also knows that these events are a little BS and that the real action takes place on the peripheries — i.e. someone to crack jokes and party with.
I found that person in Yerevan. He was from Denver and wasn’t really even a journalist. His journalist friend had to drop out of the event at the last minute and asked him if he wanted to go in his place. So he didn’t really know what he was doing and looked towards me for guidance, although I’m not sure if I’m the best of examples. We went to the underground dive bars. Drank too much in them. I believe some of the shots may have been on fire.
I believe it may have looked a little something like this:
“Did you even experience Armenia or did you just get drunk?”
I showed up late for the second day of the conference, and got caught. My personal media liaison had the look of a disappointed mother on her face. I was nearly twice her age but that didn’t seem to matter — I was scolded.
Showing up late for a conference isn’t a big deal for me but it was apparently a big deal for her. The other journalists were sitting through all of the panels and speakers, paying attention, taking notes, and getting recordings like good little squirrels. I was clearly out of step with what my peers were doing, but where I stomp around is a very different place. I’m a features writer, not a beat reporter — some monologuist up on stage performing a 20-minute script is unusable for me. I require original content, virgin quotes, and responses to my questions — not the same dribble that everyone is going to be using. So why bother putting myself through the hardship of sitting in some auditorium listening to these people?
Instead, I hang out by the food, I chill by the drinks, watching and waiting for the people I want to talk to come by. Then I pounce.
Anyway, my stories won’t be out for another three to six months anyway. The amount of work that goes into them (50, 60+ hours) is incomprehensible for a beat writer (and really doesn’t make much fiscal sense if I were to actually think about it). Going out to conferences and doing interviews and finding story lines is just the tip of the iceberg of work that I need to do, not the end-all-be-all of my profession. I have fun when content-collecting, because I know that it’s the … well, the fun part of my job — each day I spend out in the field, each person I talk to, each interview that I do is more time added to the sentence of me being locked away inside a room all alone at a laptop, researching and writing my stories. Meanwhile, the beat writer files his dailies and gets to go home after work each day, maybe stopping off for a cocktail or two with his chums … probably laughing about how us feature writers are locked up the solitary confinement of long-form journalism.
So I have my fun now, as I know I’m going to be toiling later.
“I think that Kim Kardashian West defines transparency.” -Some moderator<
Well, the Armenians when apeshit for Kim. People were fighting each other trying to get to her. Literally, one group of fighters rolled down a staircase right in front of me. Dudes where punching each other’s lights out. One attempted a karate kick. A cleaning lady wielding a broom tried to break them up. It was bonkers.
But it’s Kim Kardashian.
She spoke and impressed everyone with coherent sentences. “She sounded a lot smarter than I thought she would” seemed to have been the general consensus. However, the degree to which she was relevant to the rest of the event remains a little questionable. I guess she thought it was cool that Armenia was getting such a tech conference so decided to show up to support it. She talked about her company. I did not know that she has trouble selling lip sticks that are of different colors than she wears. I guess I learned something.
I watched for ten minutes and then retreated to a empty balcony in an abandoned auditorium, laid down on the floor, and went to sleep. I awoke two hours later to some dude standing over me looking at his phone. I peeled myself up off the old dusty carpet and stumbled to the press room. “I just wish I could have seen her butt,” was the first thing one of the journalists saying.
The press corps on this project got tight. I’ve never really witnessed this before. Usually, journalists tend to treat their brethren with an odd sort of competitive disdain. They don’t usually fight with them, but rather just try to pretend that they don’t exist. I usually find fun in making them feel uncomfortable by acknowledging their presence, breaking their fourth wall.
“Going to Kamchatka” is how Russians say they are traveling to the end of the line on a bus or train or, apparently, sitting in the back of a bus. I asked a lady from Kamchatka about what they say. She told me they say they’re going to Moscow.
Armin van Buren. He’s apparently one of the top DJs in the world. Why he’s interesting for me is that he often plays big government-sponsored events in the emerging markets that I cover. He’s like the token “We got a big DJ coming to make our event big.” He played the first GEM Fest in Anaklia, etc.
The guy basically just pushed play and stop at the beginning and end of each song, pausing long enough to yell things like “How ya doing Yerevan!?!” into the microphone. It was pre-recorded music. I have no idea how this passes for a live event.
But, then again, I only listen to Boston.
I take back everything I’ve said about conference stages producing nothing of interest. I’ve made these statements prior to my knowledge of Richard Quest. The guy is the anchor of some business show on CNN who once got arrested cruising in Central Park after hours with a rope tied between his neck and genitals and meth in his pocket, but, man, I’ve never seen anyone light up a stage like he did.
Basically, the guy did what I previously considered impossible: he made a panel discussion interesting. He was merely moderating — something that should have been ho-hum and vanilla — but he turned it into an all out performance. He put all the attention on himself and ran away with the show. I’m not sure if we learned anything about what the panel was supposed to have been about, but, boy, were we ever entertained.
He didn’t suck off the panelists, he challenged them. Basically, the guy made them prove that they were experts and worthy of sitting there on stage, rather than just taking it for granted that they were such on the grounds that they happened to be there in front of him in business attire.
I took notes.
Yes, I did a little work too:
I also interviewed the education minister, the IT minister, the founders of numerous big tech / app companies … the usual suspects.
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