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Bloomberg’s Baby Davos

 In January 2012, when he was still mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg announced that he would spend the year mastering the lucrative but laborious work of computer programming, and that his tutor would be an internet startup called Codecademy. Later, he invested in that company, although it seems his learn-to-code pledge went the way of most New Year’s resolutions.

No matter: In the control-freak sanctums of Bloomberg’s media empire, it’s always far more important for the company’s founder to be seen buying new properties than actually performing work. Bloomberg, after all, is the maximum leader of what one traumatized former senior manager called “a fascistoid organization” in a scathing Politico magazine expose of the secretive company and its inner workings—and Il Duce didn’t need to study railroad engineering to make the trains run on time, did he? Bloomberg has more important things to do, such as stroll amid the imported palm trees on his Bermudan estate, where he’s neighbors with another media tycoon-cum-politician, Silvio Berlusconi.

But while Bloomberg the thought leader grazes along the greensward slopes of moguldom, Bloomberg the company is caught up in something of a positive feedback loop, having spent the last several decades doling out shiny and expensive tech-counsel (via its totemic “terminal”) to a financier class that, like the oligarch himself, can never be bothered to master the dreary basics of the computer business. Most recently, for instance, a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story by writer and programmer Paul Ford asked, “What is code?

Ford’s answer consumed the entirety of the magazine. Ford also made a brief speaking appearance at an invitation-only, two-day Bloomberg Technology Conference last week in San Francisco, entitled “Code and the Corner Office.” (One must assume the more appropriate title, “An overview of Silicon Valley trends for people who still have secretaries to handle their email,” would not fit on the program.)

Sadly, despite my persistent cajoling, I was not invited. It was probably just as well, because I had a cold. So instead of joining the custom-tailored throng at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco, I took in the spectacle from bed, via Bloomberg’s sputtering online stream. Having watched most of it, I am left wondering, “What is Bloomberg?”

The conference was the “first marquee event” for Bloomberg LIVE, the events division of the former mayor’s $9 billion eponymous finance and media company, and is not to be confused with Bloomberg Live TV, which the Politico article memorably described as a “disaster, permanent.” Attendees were promised big thoughts from “top investors, hot entrepreneurs and other influencers,” including tech industry A-listers like former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and current Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer.

The opening party commenced on Monday evening with a cocktail reception followed by a seated dinner and a talk by Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk. A fresh-faced techie straight from central casting, Blecharczyk came to discuss his company’s penetration into Cuba in April, following the Obama administration’s decision to relax certain sanctions.

The company is wasting no time in fostering a rentier class on the socialist island. Many Cuban early adopters of Airbnb are making as much money renting out their homes for a single night as most of their comrades make in a month, Blecharczyk said. Hosts are paid in cash after Airbnb funnels their guests’ credit card payments through a middleman in Florida, an arrangement which must make the auditors cringe. One attendee supplied the obligatory flat-world hymn with a question that could have come from an ecstatic Thomas Friedman after reading Wired magazine for the first time: “Do you think Airbnb can be a sort of Trojan horse for Western values in the repressive regimes? Is that even the kind of thing that you guys think about, Airbnb diplomacy?” You’ll never guess the answer. “We like to refer to it as ‘the UN at every kitchen table,” Blecharczyk said. “I do think it makes the world a smaller place, where we see a lot more eye to eye. So, hopefully.”

Blecharczyk seemed more interested in drinking mojitos on his next Cuban visit than in overseeing some technophile Bay of Pigs invasion, but both operations seem equally well planned. The conference proper kicked off on Tuesday morning. Most of the headlines went to Twitter’s Dick Costolo, whose resignation had been announced only days before the event. This was odd, because Costolo, interviewed by Bloomberg star writer Brad Stone, had nothing to say. Likewise Yahoo’s Mayer digressively revised her study of “symbolic systems” at Stanford—a fitting resume entry for the CEO of a company that now seems little more than a floating market signifier. “We might not be the biggest technology company, but we’re the biggest technology company that gets media. We might not be the biggest media company, but we’re the biggest media company that gets tech,” Mayer said. (At least one former Yahoo employee known to us begs to differ.)

Most of the presentations, even the ones with promising titles like “Management Tips from Hackers,” were a bore. I nearly nodded off—before the lunch break—and not just because I was ill. I snapped awake when venture capitalist and economist Max Wolff tossed a glass of ice water over the agreeable patter: “A lot of what we call the sharing economy is really marginal, desperate middle class communities trying to sell whatever labor they have left over, or sell whatever items they own, to maintain their middle-class lifestyle,” Wolff said. “That’s not part of the pitch. That’s not part of the empowerment rhetoric but, let’s be honest, it’s true.”

Unfortunately, no one asked him to elaborate. The panelists and moderators were generally pleased to let the typical content-challenged Silicon Valley shibboleth rest undisturbed, at times demonstrating comical reverence for the form. When a Bloomberg moderator erroneously and insidiously credited Henry Ford with the “innovation” of the forty-hour work week, a panelist interjected admiringly, “You know your history!” Still, I had higher hopes for the mid-afternoon panel on “The Future of Work.” It was moderated by Roy Bahat, who oversees the Bloomberg Beta startup investment fund and thus creates sundry conflicts of interests for the news division.

The panelists included a research scientist with Autodesk, a firm that makes computer-aided design software and is working on a way to automate the work of architects using artificial intelligence, as well as the CEO of a company called Recommind, which helps its clients sift through their yawning troves of Big Data. 

The most noteworthy presence, however, was the controversial former Service Employees International Union boss Andy Stern. Stern left union leadership in 2010 and took a post at Columbia University funded by private equity billionaire Ronald O. Perelman. In 2006, Stern reportedly scuttled a large SEIU organizing drive at a company owned by Perelman.

In this confab, though, Stern was the insurgent voice of worker self-determination. He argued for a basic income guarantee to support the many millions of workers soon to be displaced by automation. “I think we should admit publicly that we’re arriving at a future where there’s not enough work for people,” Stern said. He suggested that society could find ways for people to find fulfillment outside of the workplace, perhaps through childcare or the arts. 

“Are unions part of that?” the moderator asked.

“I don’t think unions are part,” Stern replied. On the other hand, he said, “clearly markets and technology are part of the consideration.”

Later, he elaborated, “There’s a role for people to organize. Unfortunately unions have become a legacy institution that didn’t change with the times, like many institutions… Ask Eastman Kodak what happens when you miss the change.”

Absent radical and sweeping new safety net programs, Stern had a pessimistic view of the near future. “That’s where we’re headed right now, more toward The Hunger Games than an evolution toward a greater society.”

It was at this point—when someone had finally asked a question worth asking, and when, even more remarkably, someone supplied an intriguing answer—that the stream from the St. Regis suddenly cut out. The Bloomberg live feed was replaced by a looping video of a tropical fish tank, such as one might find in the reception area outside a corporate corner office. I watched the fish swim for a while and finally retreated under the covers.