Some are suggesting: Why not just surf the show in your skivvies?

By ara c. Trembly

One of the things that makes technology so appealing to the masses is the idea that it promises to make life easier for us. Indeed, many of the inventions of the modern era–automatic washers, dryers, dishwashers–have taken some of the time and drudgery out of everyday tasks.

Science fiction has shown us glimpses of future ages in which even more impressive things could take place. The television series “Star Trek,” for example, features a unique device known as a “replicator,” which can, at the command of a human, instantly reproduce any meal or beverage requested, right down to the brand name. The stuffy Captain Jean-Luc Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” routinely asks the replicator on board the Enterprise for “hot tea, Earl Grey.” According to englishteastore.com, Earl Grey is a blend of Indian and Ceylon teas that gets its unusual flavor from oil of bergamot, a small acidic orange that is a cross between the sweet or pear lemon and the Seville or sour orange. Even in the 24th century, producing the genuine item instantaneously from scratch would be quite a feat.

Yes, the idea that technology can replicate almost anything sounds really great, but is that what we really want? I began thinking about the notion some are advocating that industry trade shows, for example, could be done entirely over the Internet, saving us all lots of money on travel and lots of time out of the office. I started wondering what the “replicator” version of a trade show might look like in today’s technology environment.

How would we “virtually” duplicate an event like this year’s IASA annual education conference, for example? Well, we could probably set something up with a broadband connection and webcams to enable us to see and be seen by session presenters and others. Of course, enlarging one’s collection of trade show treasures such as calendars, calculators, flashlights, T-shirts, flashing buttons, squeeze toys, yo-yos, key chains, can openers and the like might be problematic. Sure, the vendors could just send those to you, but most of them probably give them out as a way of enticing you to talk with them about their products.

Maybe there could be a “virtual exhibit hall” that lets you interact with a vendor at each “booth” and then receive a giveaway later via snail mail. Now I know the thought of actually having to talk to someone at a trade show booth–rather than simply swooping by and grabbing whatever isn’t nailed down–may seem disturbing to some of you, but just remember that you can do your pilfering in your pajamas if you so choose (and if you’re OK with strangers checking you out in your nightclothes via webcam).

A potential problem area might be the star-studded entertainment normally provided at trade shows. IASA featured the allegedly funky stylings of KC & the Sunshine Band. The show included scantily clad female dancers performing sexually suggestive movements with old KC while the sweat poured off him like Niagara Falls after a heavy rain as he told us to “Get Down Tonight.” Now wouldn’t you want to experience that close up and in person? Hmmm…maybe not.

And what about the special lunches and dinners you get at such a show? I suppose they could ship the meals frozen in plastic bags to be nuked at the appropriate time by the registrants. Then groups of diners could sit at virtual dinner tables with each person chatting and chomping away in full view of the others thanks to the webcams. How cool–sitting in front of your computer watching eight other people eat and trying to talk with them while not spilling anything on your pajamas.

Whatever advantages a “virtual” trade show may provide, however, it would be short on one vital ingredient–human interaction.

While “networking” may be a computer term, it takes on a different significance when people actually interact with each other face to face. The clasp of a handshake, the pat on the shoulder, seeing old friends and colleagues, the clink of glasses toasting a deal just made–these are among the things that give real meaning to the event. However much money and time might be saved by a “replicator” trade show, we cannot ignore the fact that we as humans are relational beings. To relegate such experiences to the quasi-interactions that take place over the Web is somehow inhuman.

Sure, it might be fun to traipse virtually around the IASA conference in one’s skivvies, but I think I’d rather throw on the business casual attire and see what the real people are doing, because, well…that’s the way (uh-huh, uh-huh) I like it (uh-huh, uh-huh).

Whatever advantages a “virtual” trade show may provide, it would be short on one vital ingredient–human interaction. The clasp of a handshake, the pat on the shoulder, seeing old friends and colleagues, the clink of glasses toasting a deal just made–these are among the things that give real meaning to the event.”