1,700 Come for a Byte and Some Networking
By Mark Leibovich
With game-show choreography, the 1998 World Congress on Information Technology opened yesterday at George Mason University, a long-awaited and (well-promoted) event billed as a high-level discussion of the world's most urgent technology issues.
But to most of the 1,700 people attending, the event's paramount issues weren't bits or bytes or graphical user interfaces. Rather, they were about deal making, networking, forging relationships. Organizers planned it this way, with large common areas (loaded with food), many receptions and a golf tournament.
The panoramic buffet table at the university's George Johnson Center comprised a United Nations of Networking. Clumps of multinational technology officials held impromptu power lunches. Food servers were dressed in colonial outfits.
"We're hoping to meet some people here and tell them what we have to offer in India," said M. Madhavan Nambiar, who runs a software industry trade group in Tamil Nadu, India.
A few yards away, Israel's minister of science and technology, Michael Eitan, sipped bottled water and discussed the power of international networking in the seamless world of the Internet.
"Technology can change boundaries, and this conference achieves that also," said Eitan, who came to Washington last week to meet with local technology and economic development officials. "This is a good place to build contacts and make business partnerships," said Dale McHenry, the chief operating officer of Piercom Inc., a Limerick, Ireland, firm that makes software to fix computer systems that contain the year 2000 bug, which could cause them to malfunction in the next century.
In just two hours, McHenry had a pocket stuffed with business cards.
At George Mason's Center for the Arts, large video screens loomed over a procession of speakers. Each was announced with loud stereophonic fanfare (no major technical glitches here). Translation headsets were available in five languages. Congress organizers had predicted overflow crowds, but the auditorium was about 80 percent full for the opening speech (of those, about 80 percent were men).
Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs spoke about technology's role in the global economy. Noting that half the world's population has never made a phone call, Sachs urged attendees to "focus on the poorest of the poor" and help a wider body of people benefit from information technology.
"This may be the most urgent calling we have," Sachs said.
Last held in Bilbao, Spain, in 1996, the congress is drawing high-tech decisionmakers be they government bureaucrats or obscure executives from more than 90 countries.
But organizers were criticized for not attracting more big-name technology chief executives (such as Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates or International Business Machines Corp.'s Louis V. Gerstner Jr.) or government officials (such as President Clinton).
But stargazing seemed incidental to the deals and, said Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), the congress served as a prime economic-development platform for his state.
Gilmore was a ubiquitous presence yesterday, often surrounded by a phalanx of Virginia technology executives. The governor held a "meet and greet" reception Sunday night with representatives of 50 prospective Virginia technology companies. None of them committed to setting up operations, Gilmore said, but he said recruitment is a long process and the event helped him forge several new contacts.
Fairfax County spent about $3 million promoting the event, hoping to show it's a thriving technology center. County public relations officials were repeating these numbers like a mantra: There are 2,000 firms and 60,000 tech workers in Fairfax County.
But to some participants, the most urgent numbers of the day were soccer scores.
This judging from the large and vocal crowds that gathered to watch the day's World Cup matches on venue TVs. Never mind hard-core techie discussions of whether cable modems are going to make it: "What's the score in the Colombia-Tunisia game?" asked one executive passing a hospitality suite.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company