I get asked to these things to moderate a panel or five, and sometimes so that they can name-drop a publication I write for. So, they invite me for the free labor and a whiff of legitimacy or bait for CEOs who will only show up at a conference if they think they’ll get press out of it. There’s also the woman thing, because if there’s at least one woman moderating a couple things, then the organizers hope maybe no one will call them out for only having male experts speaking. Lately, I have also become popular on the moderator circuit because I live in a rural place and I sometimes write about tech happening in places that are not Silicon Valley, so all the tech-in-not-Silicon-Valley conferences (conferences are people, right, like corporations?) think I check all the right boxes.
I am fully aware of all of this. I know who I am, and what I have to offer at a tech conference, which is not my brilliance—which I am not saying I don’t have, but it’s not the kind that appeals to these people—but my bylines plus my willingness to do a lot of work for a little money or a plane ticket, plus my vagina happens to reside in a rural place which, these days, is kind of like having 1.3 vaginas. I know all this and yet, being one of the handful of VIP women at a tech conference always starts out feeling cool. Like when you were in high school and a guy would say you were “not like other girls” or “cool, like a guy,” and you would take it as a compliment because you didn’t know yet that it wasn’t. Somehow I read Gone Girl and sat through the movie and still allow myself to feel like the Cool Girl.
And so, a few weeks ago I strode confidently into the conference room of the Hayden Lake Country Club in northern Idaho like I deserved to be there. It was a pleasantly wealthy sort of place—lots of windows with a lake view, manicured lawns, and a lot of wood but not in the 1970s wood-paneling sort of way, just nice and comfortable but not trying too hard. I had met the organizer at another tech-in-not-Silicon-Valley conference, so I recognized him right away, although he was noticeably thinner than the last time I’d seen him, like he’d gotten rid of his dad bod just for the conference. He was wearing a tailored pale-yellow collared shirt and stood out as more stylish and manicured than the rest of the crowd. I’d forgotten about his enormous wedding ring, a ring that screams: “I designed a masculine wedding ring for myself!” At any rate, the organizer said hello and how glad he was that I was there, and introduced me to the older and balder man he’d been talking to, who paused briefly to say hello, and then they both continued their conversation while I stood there. Tech investor types are genius-level good at making you feel like they have literally turned their backs on you without actually moving. I excused myself and went to breakfast, where everyone scoped out each other’s bodies and then what was on their plates and then back to bodies again.
The morning was spent playing “innovation” games, where everyone was divided into groups to work on an invention together, which they then sketched out on a giant Post-it (now that’s an innovation!) and picked someone from the group to present. I am a nerd who loved school, so I got into it, and honestly it was nice to spend an hour talking to people about ideas instead of obsessively checking my phone. At the end of the hour, it was time to pick whose idea we would get behind and present as a group. The other woman in our group and I instantly discounted our ideas as not presentable.
At the break, because we were at a country club on a lake and there were a few dudes at the conference who are members there, I got to go out on a boat. It was me and five men who politely allowed me to speak occasionally. Two out of five had sweaters draped over their shoulders. Two more were wearing fleece. I began to remember that these men never think someone like me has anything worthwhile to contribute to a conversation—on top of being a woman, I have no money, and I’m a journalist, which means I am both nontechnical and suspect. They have a weird relationship with the media, desperately wanting its attention but also hating its power. Also, they are mostly libertarians who assume journalists are flaming liberals and therefore idiots, which, fair, because I think libertarians are idiots. (Except not fair, because I am right.)
At lunch, I was relieved when one of the other four women there waved me over. She created a website a long time ago that I really loved, and I told her that. She said, “Thank you, I wanted to meet you because I recognize your byline and also journalists are the best, they’re always the smartest people in the room,” and who can help but love a person who speaks the truth? She asked casually if I was working on a story about the organization hosting the conference and I gave a long rambling yes-and-no answer and then she gave me the “come here so I can tell you a secret” gesture and whispered to me that another tech guy she knows in northern Idaho told her the guy running the show here had been arrested twice over the summer for beating his wife. “Now, this is just something I heard, but it should be pretty easy to check,” she said, but I was already looking up the police blotter on my phone and thinking, “THE RING!!!”
“I’m not sure what to do,” my new friend said. “Because on the one hand, ugh. On the other, I’m sure Einstein wasn’t an awesome human and how do you weigh someone’s public contributions with their private issues?”
“Mmmm,” I said, but I was mostly like, whoa, lady, didn’t you see Nanette?
I googled the organizer and it was all right there: The local newspapers reported that his wife initially said she was struck on the head three times and then slapped, but later released a statement calling the whole incident “overblown” and a “misunderstanding.” There were two incidents from this summer and one from 2015.
After giving me this information, my new friend took off. Twenty minutes later I texted her a link to a story in the local paper about the latest arrest, complete with a mug shot. She replied: “Oh my.”
When I looked up from my phone, the organizer / ring dude was sitting next to an older gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt who was explaining what his nonprofit does. They provide foster care for kids. “Sometimes parents haven’t lost custody,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a temporary thing because there’s something going on at home, maybe a drug arrest, or domestic abuse.”
I looked around the room wondering how many people also knew and just didn’t care, and how many, like me, had just never thought to question a young white guy wearing an expensive yellow shirt. One Google search of his name and it all comes up, but here we all were, playing along. I claimed to have a deadline to hit and left.
A few hours later, I had made it through a pile of work and couldn’t decide whether to go to the evening festivities. On the one hand, I didn’t want to. On the other, I needed to get out of this two-story, four-bedroom frat boy dream AirBnB that was supposed to be for “all the women” and was now — and I was starting to suspect I knew why — just for me.
I decided to go to the conference block party. The organizer was not there, but I found various other men I’d met earlier, and they proceeded to share their thoughts on journalism and how unfair it has been to them. They were outraged to have been interviewed for stories that always turned out differently than they thought they would. They are forever being taken out of context! I told them about all the issues I see in journalism, too, which they loved, but also asked whether they thought the very best possible way to do journalism would be to prioritize the feelings of the subjects of stories, which they did not love. I heard about their various investments and successes and the results of the genetic tests they’d all taken. It was interesting to watch people who are so totally free of self-doubt. I ate warm bread made by a bread-making robot that was like a giant-sized Apple-designed version of the bread machine that’s been hanging out in my pantry untouched for years. While the bread was free (and tasty!), the beer turned out not to be, so I walked back to my Airbnb thinking about that fucking ring again and muttering all my genius delayed responses to the critiques of journalism and also being like, “WTF no free beer?”
The next morning, I had to do what I had come here to do and host panels. I briefly considered bailing and just sending the guy his mug shot as an explanation. But there were people there for whom these new tech opportunities are a real lifeline. It’s unfair that they should lose out because of one guy. Not that my panel moderation was going to give them a job and change their lives, but I wanted them to have a nice conference and feel good about what was happening here. There was a bearded university administrator there who is really trying to save his community; he is earnest and dedicated and leans in to listen when people speak, and I wanted to show up for that guy.
The event was taking place in an auditorium on a college campus. Before one of the panels I was moderating, one of the panelists—a bloated Walmart exec with weirdly perfectly combed hair and an Arkansas drawl—told me he thought the reason Americans have gotten so far away from giving a shit about each other is “government subsidies.” But there are fewer subsidies now than a decade ago, I said. “People want handouts, and when someone else does everything for you, you have no self-respect, so you can’t have respect for others,” he said, as though he were explaining to a toddler why they couldn’t eat the peel of an orange. The other guy on the panel nodded along. Yes, of course this is what the problem is.
I wanted to shout, “Wage stagnation is the problem, WALMART! Late-stage capitalism is eating itself, and I know you love data, so there is fucking data to prove it, but you’re too busy listening to Joe Rogan talk about ayahuasca to read it!” But I did not. I said, “I’m not sure the data backs that up.” He just looked at me.
On my way out of the venue, people told me I did a good job and thanked me for being there. One tall, thin older gentleman in glasses and a neon-green conference T-shirt stopped me to tell me I need to hold the mic closer to my mouth to make sure everyone can hear. “Oh okay, thanks,” I said. “You did a good job, though,” he said. “I liked that you didn’t have to use notes or anything.”
“Thanks!” I said.
“But the microphone thing, yeah. I was in this futurist group back twenty or thirty years ago and if you had been presenting there, they would have done this thing they always did when someone held the mic too far away. They’d yell ‘BLOW JOB!’ ”
And he laughed and I laughed because what was I going to do? Tell this guy I’m really glad no one yelled blow job? Also, I almost didn’t care, because even if men stopped wanting to yell BLOW JOB the world would still be a fucking disaster.