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Washington diary: Hi-tech hijack

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Robin Williams

When technology fails at a technology conference, it is embarrassing. But when the audience includes some of the demi-gods of hi-tech, who have each coughed up $6,000 (£3,000) to be there, it becomes excruciating.

I had come to Monterey, on the glistening shores of the Pacific, to host a BBC World debate about the tussle between the old media and the new media.

As it turned out, I ended up dealing with a more old-fashioned tussle, the one between fear and limelight.

On stage we had, amongst others, Queen Noor of Jordan, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame and Sergey Brin of Google. In the audience I spotted the other founder of Google, and the founders of eBay, Facebook and YouTube.

The Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker was there too, and so were dozens of the richest, cleverest and most quick-witted citizens of California who have reinvented the way we live our lives.

Later I bumped into the inventor of the iPod and the man who had dreamed up Google Earth. A very impressive bunch and a tough crowd to please.

'We have a problem'

The annual Technology, Entertainment and Design conference, or TED, is a mecca for Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The only thing that is sub-prime here is the dress sense.

The de rigueur fashion for cyber-billionaires are Crocs without socks, slacks and black T-shirts. The richer you are, the more you dress down. Wearing a suit (I had quietly ditched the tie), I was definitely the most over-dressed and poorest person in the auditorium.

Robin Williams was not just in the house. He was on stage, stealing my show, or rather rescuing me from another tortuous silent political joke

It was time to start the debate. I was 30 seconds into my opening and was just about to remind the audience - as if they needed it - that Sergey Brin has an estimated worth of $18bn and is thus only the fourth youngest billionaire in the world.

The other three were all in the audience. I asked Mr Brin how he could live with being number four. I thought that was quite witty.

Then I heard the usually calm and reasonable voice of my producer Neil talk into my earpiece. His voice had been tuned up half a tone. I detected a bat's squeak of panic.

"Matt?!" he said, half question, half address. "We have a problem. The cameras aren't working yet!" The sentence lingered in my head for a second while the words continued to come out of my mouth and I was mulling the consequences for what was, after all, a televised debate.

"Stop talking!" he helped out. "Now. You need to entertain the audience!"

I explained what had happened to 600 people and then wondered what the hell I would do next.

Expletives

I told the crowd, for whom time really is money, that we had to interrupt the show because the producer had insisted on telling me a very complicated but hilariously funny political joke from Poland.

I would have to listen to it while they watched in silence and I promised to share it with them later. The billionaires laughed. Phew.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google (file picture)
California's technology billionaires tend to dress down

I could have started our discussion on stage but that would have deflated the hour-long debate we would eventually record.

So I was about to abseil over the next abyss of improvisation when I sensed a commotion in what theatregoers in London call "the Gods", the final rows at the very back and top of the theatre.

Then I made out a Scottish accent. A heckler. Damn. He was getting quite abusive too. Expletives were heard. A physical tussle was the last thing I needed.

Suddenly the murmurs morphed into a wave of laughter that washed down to the stage. Carl Bernstein stood up, pointed and said. "It's Robin! Come on down Robin!"

"Robin? Who the hell is Robin?" I thought, not imagining for one second that perhaps the world's most famous actor and comedian would now run down the stairs and stand in front of me.

Robin Williams was not just in the house. He was on stage, stealing my show, or rather rescuing me from another tortuous silent political joke.

While cameras were being adjusted, he treated us to a brilliant, impromptu improvisation on the tussle between old and new technology.

It was spot on and deliciously rude. It had the audience rolling in the aisles, the organisers fretting about keeping time and me worrying about how I would ever be able to rekindle interest in a debate about journalism.

It would be like dried biscuits after chocolate souffle.

What I didn't have to worry about was how to warm up the audience. They were red-hot and giddy with excitement after Robin had finished delivering his soliloquy.

If you want to know what happened next you can always watch it from the link at the top of the page... assuming the technology works of course.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News Americawhich airs every weekday at 0030 GMT on BBC News 24 and at 0000 GMT (1900 ET / 1600 PT) on BBC World and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).


video and audio news
Robin Williams improvises at BBC World debate



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