The insight-industrial complex

I don’t like tech conferences. I mean, of course I don’t, they’re not meant for people like me. I’m an introvert, so I find them exhausting, and am (presumably) less likely than an extrovert to meet interesting or contributory people. I read much faster than people talk, so they’re not a good way for me to learn things. But there’s more to my dislike than that.

I find that the actual goal of conferences often seems to be quite distinct from the notional goal. The notional goal is for people to come together to learn about the field in question: some detailed specifics, some new announcements, and an overall general view of the state of the art, all under one roof. Maybe, if all goes well, to even find people to collaborate with in the future.

To the extent that conferences do those things, they’re great. But at too many conferences, those intentions often seem to be incidental to the actual goal, which is to reify the importance and social status of the conference organizers and speakers, while in practice all else is secondary.

Obviously this wouldn’t be true, or at least wouldn’t matter, if people were actually getting their money’s worth from the pearls of wisdom their “VIP” speakers drop on stage. But are they really? Speaking as an occasional alleged pearl-of-wisdom dropper myself, let me assure you: I have serious doubts.

There seems to be a widespread mindset that all you really need to succeed is insight. That you just need to learn a little more, to integrate one more dose of perspicacity from some billionaire or guru, and then you too will have assembled enough of an arsenal of wisdom to overcome any of life’s or business’s obstacles. That what separates success from failure is a sufficiency of sage advice.

This seems to be especially common among those who revere academia, or their idea of academia. The problem is this: it’s not true. Very few pearls or even paragraphs of wisdom ever actually translate into any kind of actionable plan. What’s more, if you look hard you can probably find unimpeachable wisdom arguing all sides of any given situation.

Meanwhile, if you’re doing something genuinely interesting, then nobody really knows what the hell is going to work or not yet; and if you aren’t, then a dozen others are doing it too, and execution, rather than a little extra abstruse understanding is going to make the difference. Either way, pearls of wisdom seem pretty extraneous.

What does help is learning from others’ mistakes, when and only when the context of those mistakes is comparable to yours … but it’s rare for conferences to invite speakers to talk about their mistakes. Rather, “VIP” speakers talk about “how they made it,” and while doing so are incentivized by basic human nature to overstate their own contributions to their success, and understate those of external forces — meaning the wisdom they’re doling out is almost always heavily skewed by (frequently unconscious) self-serving bias.

Far better than listening to pearls of wisdom is hearing people being challenged professionally. Again, that’s rare — although it does happen. It’s why I like TechCrunch’s conferences. (I know, I know, you’re thinking “of course he’d say that,” but it’s actually true. I vote with my feet; I can get into most tech conferences for free, and almost never do, but I always attend Disrupt.) This is because of the Battlefield format, in which a clutch of startups get to introduce themselves, which is mildly interesting … and then get grilled by skeptical industry experts live on-stage, which is the good bit.

I also like “unconferences,” where you’re more likely to hear war stories and learn from others’ mistakes, rather than be expected to sit at the feet of lionized gurus and feed on what crusts of wisdom they might choose to drop. All too many formal, paid conferences, though, are part of what I call the “insight-industrial complex”: people flock to them to hear quasi-famous people rattle off pseudo-wise sound bites devoid of any actual value. This applies very much to social media, too, of course. Twitter is clearly the grassroots of the insight-industrial complex.

Being insightful is not actually that important. No, really. Here’s an even more heretical thought: even being intelligent is not actually that important, whether you measure importance by success, happiness, or influence. What matters most is often — usually — execution, not wisdom; attention to detail, not vision.

I’m aware of the irony that most of this essay, as with most of my TC columns, is itself structured to consist of sound bites that are arguably sort of striving in at least a vaguely insightful direction. But bear in mind you’re reading this for free, while conferences cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. By all means, go to them to network, to get an overview of your field, to witness people being challenged, and to learn from others’ mistakes. But don’t go because they feature speakers from the insight-industrial complex.