Looking for a select gathering? Just Google it

New-media gurus, political pointy-heads, start-up whizz-kids and rock stars mingled at this year's Zeitgeist conference. Adam Sherwin reports

Tuesday 22 May 2012 10:04
£8m: Actress and model Lily Cole
£8m: Actress and model Lily Cole

Secluded within the 300-acre grounds of a luxury Hertfordshire hotel, a select gathering of new-media gurus, political pointy-heads, start-up whizz-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) also made the cut at an event previously graced by the Prince of Wales 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 which 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 the 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' appearance feels a little like being promised a Coldplay special guest and then getting the drummer.

Yesterday's Zeitgeist attendees, who included singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, Jamal Edwards, a 21-year-old online music entrepreneur from Acton, west London, and fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, did gain an exclusive 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.

For her part, 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" and a unique insight into our economically volatile yet inter-connected world.

Google's Zeitgeist maintains its cache because of its invite-only status, proximity to Heathrow and the networking opportunities offered by the breadth of its participants. The elite attendees might not be stitching up a new economic order, but a rising web entrepreneur could learn an inspiring lesson in successful long-term management strategy from Wenger.

Yet when Google used yesterdayto 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. Real insiders know that Britain's power brokers won't be found at Zeitgeist – they are assembling today at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

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