Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Google gathering: Search engine is taking its quest for knowledge offline at a secluded British hotel

Secluded within the 300-acre grounds of a luxury Hertfordshire hotel, a select gathering of new media gurus, political pointy-heads, start-up whiz kids and pop stars awarded the post-chart career title "humanitarian" are meeting to carve up the digital future.

Except they're probably not, unless the power brokers attending the secretive conclave known as the Google Zeitgeist conference have discovered a new economic paradigm through a hip-hop Shakespeare master-class and a musical performance from Imogen Heap.



Each year, Larry Page, Google's co-founder and Eric Schmidt, executive chairman, jet into London for the invitation-only annual gathering, at the Grove hotel, where 400 delegates, chosen from the "great minds of our time", discuss topics ranging from technology and the media to politics and the arts.



This year's guest list includes Goldman Sachs's BRICs expert Jim O'Neill, singer Annie Lennox, and Bill Clinton, who will shoot the breeze with Schmidt at a panel session today.



Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger and model Lily Cole (who boasts a double first from Cambridge, should anyone doubt her credentials) also made the cut at an event previously graced by Prince Charles and Sir Richard Branson.



For conspiracy theorists, the conference, staged by the search engine giant, which reported a 60 per cent surge in earnings to $2.89bn this year, is a cuddlier version of the Bilderberg Group, the supposedly shadowy network of financiers that holds a private annual assembly, recast in the image of our new tech masters. Google's conference is just one of a growing list of gatherings designed to bring the great and the good into one place under the organisers' aegis, and not everyone believes that such events are wholly altruistic.



The close links between Google, which has lobbied for a relaxation of copyright laws, and Government are coming under increasing scrutiny. At the weekend it was disclosed that there have been 23 official meetings between Tory ministers and Google since the general election. And Google was yesterday warned by the European Commission to answer allegations that it has abused its dominant position in the online search market.



Those looking for ulterior motives can also point to the presence of David Willetts, the universities minister. But he is speaking at Big Tent, a separate conference which is open to the media, tagged on to Zeitgeist tomorrow. And given that David Cameron addressed the inaugural 2006 Zeitgeist, Mr Willetts's appearance feels a little like being promised a Coldplay special guest and then getting the drummer.



Yesterday, Zeitgeist attendees, who included acoustic singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, Jamal Edwards, a 21-year-old online music entrepreneur from Acton, and fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, did gain an insight into Europe's debt crisis from George Papandreous, the former Greek Prime Minister. "We need a more participatory democracy or there will be a backlash against globalisation," he warned.



Lily Cole used Zeitgeist to launch a new "social giving" network, impossible.com, with Jimmy Wales, the Wikipedia co-founder, as her "angel investor". The model said the site, based around a gifting economy concept, would "translate social media relationships into actually valuable relations for good".



The conference's aim, to capture the "spirit of the times", also allowed for entertaining diversions such as Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News presenter, who posited a gender gap between programme guests – female experts undersell their expertise, while men offer opinions whatever the subject.



Matt Ridley, author of the Rational Optimist, posited the theory that "the modern world achieves things nobody actually knows how to do. It is run by collective intelligence, aka the cloud".



Indeed Ridley's witty aperçus may have been familiar to delegates who had previously heard his address, "when ideas have sex", at TEDGlobal, another in the dizzying round of global ideas summits promising movers and shakers "brain food".



Google's Zeitgeist maintains its caché because of its invite-only status, proximity to Heathrow and the networking opportunities.



The elite attendees might not be stitching up a new economic order, but a web entrepreneur could learn lessons in successful long-term management strategy from Wenger.



Yet when Google used yesterday's afternoon session to plug its forthcoming "augmented-reality" Google Glasses, the event began to take on the air of a thinly-disguised sales conference.



Jealousy may account for some of the suspicion directed at the Grove gathering. Real insiders know that Britain's power brokers won't be found at Zeitgeist – they are assembling today at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.



Around the world in five conferences



World Economic Forum, Davos



More than 2,000 of the world's most powerful political leaders and businessmen gather annually in the Swiss Alps to exchange ideas.







TED



Tickets cost thousands, but the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conferences – one in California, one in Edinburgh – set a benchmark for ideas-shops.







South by Southwest interactive



Best known for its music festival, the city of Austin, Texas also holds an annual tech conference with hundreds of talks.







Allen & Co's Sun Valley Conference



The private investment firm has held a conference in Idaho since 1983, inviting political big-hitters .



The 99%



Referring to Thomas Edison's quote that genius is 99 per cent perspiration, this NY event looks at turning ideas into action.



Chris Stevenson

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