OZY Fest, the two-day millennial Davos held in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield last weekend, was an event for all those who love the most enervating elements of the music festival experience: being herded like cattle through TSA-style security checkpoints, sitting on fake grass in punishing sun, drinking overpriced beer, being visually reminded of one’s lowly general admission status by the omnipresence of covered bandstands and booze-filled tents reserved for the elite. There was music at the end of the day, but the majority of the program was taken up by panels and interviews that felt like the weekday offerings on MSNBC. It didn’t make sense to me when I first heard about it and it makes even less sense to me having witnessed it. All of my efforts at psychologizing or anthropologizing OZY fest attendees — who paid anywhere from $100 to $400 for the weekend — were stymied by the brute fact that these people wanted so much to be “part of the conversation” they were willing to risk sunstroke to listen to Grover Norquist talk about the estate tax. Some things are beyond knowing.
The closest thing to an explanation can be gleaned from the news and aggregation website OZY.com, the festival’s sponsor and the brain child of former MSNBC host and McKinsey consultant Carlos Watson (yes, it does sound a lot like Ozzfest, and yes, Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne DID sue them for copyright infringement and yes, this is somehow OZY Fest’s third successful year). According to its “About” section, OZY is a news site… with a twist. Instead of another boring webpage that simply posts “the latest stories from around the globe,” OZY is “a news site you will actually love.” I think we can all agree that this is a normal and reasonable goal for a site where the top story of the day is “Which Country Loves to Snap More than Saudi Arabia? None: Internet Celebrities, A Reform-Minded Saudi Prince, and a Silicon Valley Giant Collide.” (What could we expect, I suppose, from a website whose about page reads: “That’s what drives us at OZY: the idea that more is possible. And we’re not afraid to challenge assumptions about the way the world is in order to see the world the way it could be. That conviction is right in our name. Yup, it’s from the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem ‘Ozymandias.’ And yup, most folks read that poem as a caution against big egos and the impermanence of power. We read it differently. To us, the poem says think big, but be humble, lest you end ‘two vast and trunkless legs…in the desert.’” Sorry about your fallen empire, Ramesses II, but you just didn’t want it enough)
It takes a special kind of Silicon Valley-inflected insanity to think that cross-platform synergy and dynamic branding can invalidate the second law of thermodynamics. But the techno-optimistic fantasy doesn’t stop online — every panel and interview at OZY Fest had a chair reserved for Dr. Pangloss. Steven Pinker’s event, which could have been titled “The Future: Where We’ll Be Spending the Rest of Our Lives,” also featured venture capitalist Mike Moe, author of “The Global Silicon Valley Handbook” (just let the ominous phrase ‘global Silicon Valley’ marinate in your brain for a minute) and Cindy Mi, an online “educational technology” CEO. They chanted a soothing paen to progress. The future will be like now, but better. Advances in tech make life more bearable for the poorest people on earth as well as give teachers the freedom to instruct thousands of students online from the comfort of their homes, unburdened by union dues or health insurance co-pays. And the young people in the audience were assured, in a week where wildfires raged from Sweden to Greece and an unprecedented heat wave killed dozens in Japan, that the world’s innoventers and apprenprenuers are on the case, and climate change is just another tech challenge to be solved. Whatever you do, kids, don’t stop producing surplus value just because you’ll probably be cooked alive at your desk in 20 years.
But even amidst this bubbly cant, the dark, accelerationist heart of techno-neoliberalism occasionally winked. After Mike Moe waxed rhapsodic about the disruptive game-changing power of the “sharing economy,” the interviewer pressed him on the contingent and benefit-free nature of those jobs. Moe’s answer? Welcome to the future, bitch. The average college graduate will have 15 careers by the time they retire, “if they retire,” he said, out loud, in front of an audience. You can try to fight the tide of atomization and wage erosion and the destruction of work/life balance, but that’s “like trying to fight gravity.” You can’t stop what’s coming. Take some Massive Open Online Courses, get on Fivver and pray that you don’t get caught by the pull of the black hole and stretched into an infinite spaghetti strand.
“The world’s innoventers and apprenprenuers are on the case, and climate change is just another tech challenge to be solved.”
Fear not, though! Your livelihood and health and general destiny may be firmly in the grasp of a bunch of Soylent-chugging sociopaths, but your self-conception and personal brand are fully under your control. OZY Fest offered a host of interactive experiences to help the attendees feel empowered to get informed, active, and energized. Even the panel on “The Future of the Conservative Movement Under Trump” with anti-tax goblin Grover Norquist and Appalachian Trail hiker and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, which did little to thrill the crowd of Nasty Women and Friends of the Pod, promoted self-improvement. Listening to these Republican sleazoids prattle about the coming debt bomb and the power of tax cuts might have put the attendees off their artisanal dumplings, but it also assured them that they’re open-minded, thoughtful people who are willing to listen to different points of view, unlike the MAGA maniacs and the strident leftist de-platformers. From Common’s plea for people to end mass incarceration through education and outreach — because “you have to listen in order to hear” — to Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez insisting in a plaintive wail that the Democratic Party is working hard to serve you, that he’s listening to the hopes of people all across the country, that your call is very important to him and to please stay on the line, the OZY Fest message that rung out the loudest was that the people who paid to be there are good people living in a good country that was only going to get better.
Yet there was a snake lurking in the garden. A snake with the head of Donald Trump and the tail of Vladimir Putin. The cognitive dissonance of all this upbeat digital futurism, vibrant personal expression, and free exchange of ideas occuring in Donald Trump’s nightmare version of America hung over the proceedings like the thunderclouds that steadily gathered over the main stage over the course of the day. The demon needed to be exorcised. This multi-hour passion play needed a deux ex machina to restore the world to rightful harmony.
Enter: Hillary Clinton.
Clinton, gloriously on theme, arrived on the main stage to a rapturous greeting from the thoroughly warmed-up crowd. She was interviewed by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve’s widow and one of the main financial backers of OZY Media. Jobs got the crowd frothing by asking Clinton about Trump’s recent treasonous behavior in Helsinki and his refusal to confront the dastard Putin, his secret puppeteer. Clinton steadfastly insisted on disappointing the audience by eschewing cathartic zingers for a plodding, prosecutorial overview of the Mueller investigation. Only the novelty of hearing Clinton say the word “Guccifer” kept me from drifting off completely. It went on that way for an hour: Jobs would set Clinton up for a blistering stemwinder only for Clinton to respond with an empty drone about the innate goodness of America and the existential threat posed by Putin. Every question was an audience-wide inhalation, and every answer was a slow, long, thwarted exhale.
Clinton didn’t land a punch, but she did have this to say: “...We can march all we want but if at the end of the day if we don’t win elections than the people who will stop what’s happening now and try to bring us back to a more unified understanding of what we should be focused on and supporting, and stand up for our country and our democracy against Russia or anybody else… I do worry about our country’s future. But that’s not gonna happen because the optimism and the energy here and we saw there is going to make sure we go out and do what we must come November.” Inspiring stuff.
As Clinton wound it down and the audience whooped it up, I looked at the ominous clouds hunched above us and hoped for a cleansing downpour, for God or nature to pass judgement on this parade of false idols and noxious pride, to break the spell and send the revelers fleeing for the exits. But the rain didn’t come. There was no reckoning. I didn’t stay for the sets by Common or Passion Pit. I didn’t come the next day to listen to Chelsea Handler yell at Karl Rove about impeachment or Malcolm Gladwell tell an enraptured audience that being stupid is actually smart. Instead I left OZY Fest, never to return, secure in the terrible knowledge that if God exists, he got sick of our bullshit a long time ago.