October 1999
s m u g
smoking jacket
by Gregory Alkaitis-Carafelli

Outside the Box

A man in black tights, his head looking tiny and out of place dwarfed by the larger-than-life cardboard box heís wearing, a box made to look like what you would take off the shelf if you were to buy the product of a popular West Coast software company, tries to convince me to buy something, or at least for godís sake give him some dignity and take a few glossy promotional flyers. Around the corner two people are arguing over which booth has the most attractive presenters, while next to them one of the subjects of their debate -- perky, blonde, and with a headpiece microphone just like Vogue-era Madonna -- tries to sell people on another piece of software. Her main point to make for the product seems to be that it lets "you add moving GIFs and JPEGs to your e-mail!" And the world rejoiced, I thought, followed by When did the computer industry get so stupid? Or, why am I just noticing this now?

Lately I have been going to trade shows, giant explosions of salespeople, all wielding enough product literature to send weak-hearted environmentalists over the edge into full-out cardiac arrest. I used to think the idea of a trade show was a way to see technology lit not from the light of a single sales spotlight but flooded in the fluorescent glow of informationís Las Vegas, where the house still mostly wins, but there are slot machines everywhere, even the bathrooms, and you leave if not actually richer at least feeling like a winner. Now, as the summer season of trade shows winds to a close, to be replaced, like television, with a fall season of exactly the same thing, the whole process folding in on itself over and over until itís totally clear to me how entire careers are made up of nothing but the Trade Show, people who today are equivalent to carnival folk, moving constantly from city to city, convention center to convention center, I have to wonder if other people have noticed how silly they look, or more importantly if they do realize but donít care.

One company created the Golden Gate Bridge in modest miniature, and it loomed over their plush carpeted area. Elsewhere, Marc Andressen told me instant messaging was the next "tornado app" -- and after he finished telling me how proud he was of his new buzzword (killer app meets Internet equals tornado app: as in his example, e-mail) he told me "people connecting to other people is what the 'net is all about." At a CNBC mini-studio with nothing to sell but tons of hype to give away, in the form of the live remote, their portable stage angled to pack the backgrounds of their talking-head shots with the most product logos from the trade show floor -- people nearly trampled each other to connect with a branded tote bag, easily "the best giveaway this year" according to one participant.

In the mail yesterday a model airplane kit came, included with an invitation to an event a company is holding at a trade show Iím going to this month. I punched out all of the parts and put them together, along with a penny in the nose of the plane as indicated, and it flew pretty well -- all the way across the office, where it crashed and promptly fell apart. How fitting, since it was never supposed to work in the first place; just stand out enough to get attention paid to the companyís event. Because that is the lesson of the modern technology trade show: itís not about your product, but how well you can make your product look; not what is inside the software box for sale, but how to get a man-sized version of the box for someone to walk around in for eight hours, and also something for him to give away to "potentials." And every year the crowds get bigger, the giveaways more elaborate - from T-shirt to tote bag to full-motion mechanical dolls - because, after all, who doesnít enjoy the carnival when it comes to town?

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gregory@smug.com

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