On Monday, Wired held its first-ever business conference, titled “Disruptive By Design.” A stellar cast was on stage and, perhaps more interestingly, in the audience as well. The audience had people you would normally see on stage, like Mary Meeker and Tim O’Reilly. Conde Nast, the new owner of Wired, seems to be recognizing that the old prophecy (long known to readers here) “the geek shall inherit the earth” has finally come to pass. This event was about geeky tech stuff really changing the world.

The Stellar Cast

With this list of speakers, you can certainly attract an audience:

  • Shai Agassi
  • Chris Anderson
  • Jesper Andersen
  • Jeff Bezos
  • Tim Cadogan
  • Jeff Immelt
  • Vivek Kundra
  • Elon Musk
  • Toby Segaran
  • Mark Shuttleworth
  • Scott Thompson
  • Neil Young

Okay, one disappointment: it was not that Neil Young! This Neil Young gave a very interesting talk about the future of gaming, even if he never did break into Old Man.

The stand-out session for me was Shai Agassi of Project Better Place. But at any other event, most of the other sessions would have been top of the pack. Jeff Bezos was awesome as always: Tim O’Reilly already reported well on his talk. Elon Musk was fascinating, and the juxtaposition of him and Shai Agassi was event as art: first Car 2.0 and then Oil 2.0. Jeff Imelt, CEO of a little company called GE, gave the kind of insight you only get when you run a $180 billion (in revenue) business and have to bring in $15 billion in revenue growth every year to keep investors happy.

The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

It is no coincidence that Conde Nast closed Portfolio magazine just a few months before running Wired’s first business event. Portfolio celebrated the old heavy hitters: you know, the Wall Street crowd. Those guys are hiding right now and not exactly prized by advertisers.

Silicon Valley has always held the view that geeks rule. That just happens to be a relatively novel idea here in New York City. Conde Nast is the quintessential New York publisher: a great spotter and amplifier of trends. Its message to the social crowd in New York was, invite engineers to your next party, and forget about those hedge fund guys.

Gutenberg’s Bible and the Panic of 1907

The event was held at the Morgan Library and Museum, a venue choice full of historical echoes and ironies. This was the house where JP Morgan assembled Wall Street’s heavy hitters in 1907 to stop the financial meltdown that is probably the closest historical parallel to the post-Lehman financial panic we saw in the fall of 2008.

The cocktail party was in JP Morgan’s library. It was fun to look at the first Gutenberg Bible while recalling Jeff Bezos saying that “Print has had a good 500-year run,” while waving his Kindle to imply that the run is over.

The Retro Chic of Print

Conde Nast is the ideal owner for Wired. It understands how great design can make a print product a must-have. One can imagine Vogue and Vanity Fair thriving in print forever. Wired is marvelously retro. That a magazine heralding the future should be one of the few magazines that geeks want to read in print is deliciously ironic.

Wired seems to understand that print has retro-chic appeal, a bit like vinyl for music heads.

Shai Agassi and Better Place

I would have attended this event just to hear Shai Agassi of Better Place. His is one of those incredibly big, audacious ideas that make one optimistic about humanity. He has his share of critics who say he will fail, of course. But the scale of what he has already achieved is amazing:

  • Electric car battery replacement in less time than it takes to swipe a credit card,
  • Persuaded governments in Israel and Denmark to implement his electric refueling stations across the country,
  • Persuaded a large global car company, Nissan, to build electric cars for these markets at scale.

His mission is to end oil dependency. Of course, he also wants his company to make money because that is the only way this idea will be self-sustaining, and he owes that to his investors. But this is one guy you believe when he says it is really not about the money. If someone were to copy his idea and out-execute him, he would be happy enough, because he reckons that we need a billion electric cars to end oil dependency. He needs this idea to be validated by others.

Wired put on a great show by having Elon Musk talk about Tesla, a totally amazing achievement, and then following him with Shai Agassi. Tesla is a real production pure electric car. Hearing Musk and Agassi speak, one comes away convinced that electric cars, powered by renewable energy sources, will be a mass-market reality fairly soon. That is a pretty big deal!