The Personal Touch at Oracle OpenWorld

There’s plenty of worry—much of it well founded—that technology is breaking down the need, and maybe even the desire, for good old-fashioned person-to-person human interaction. Social networking, e-commerce, online advertising—they’re all enabling us to spend more time with our screens and less with our peeps, or the story goes. And what do we get in exchange? A little more speed and convenience, and a lot less privacy.

You can blame the Facebooks and Amazons of the world for this, but a share of the blame likely lies with one of the grey eminences of the technology business: Oracle. Its software is the engine behind many of the biggest businesses, with the longest reaches, in the world. Oracle’s spectacular scope and scale are on full display this week at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco. (Disclosure: Oracle is a longtime client of mine; I write for their publications, and I’m attending the show on a complimentary press/blogger pass.)

Oracle OpenWorld is beyond overwhelming. It brings tens of thousands of attendees and $120 million to San Francisco from around the world. More than 100,000 hotels rooms in the City (and many in surrounding cities) are booked. Howard Street has become an alfresco great room. The entirety of Moscone Center and several nearby venues are packed with IT guys, programmers, developers, and marketing folks, not to mention the crowds of people here to help us find our way, serve us our lunch, and otherwise care for us. All of Oracle OpenWorld’s sessions, even the small technical ones, are highly produced, with wireless microphones, large video screens, slick PowerPoint presentations, and walk-on music for the presenters, who are introduced by voice-of-god announcers. The lights and sound will induce vertigo if the crowds don’t.

But Oracle OpenWorld is more than a gathering of nerds who prefer relational databases over relationships. It’s a gathering of people, and the human touch that invariably occurs when people interact with one another is what leads me to my favorite anecdote from today.

I was attending a session about Enterprise Mobility, and was sitting next to a fellow from Japan. (At least I surmise he was from Japan; the lock screen on his iPad was in Japanese.) To his left were two guys from Latin America. (At least I assume they were from Latin America, from their speech and dress.) We were in a darkened theater looking at a bright screen, and the Japanese guy tried to take a photo of a PowerPoint slide with his iPad. He was unsuccessful; the picture was washing out. Silently, one of the Latin American guys touched his shoulder, held up his own phone, and showed the Japanese guy how to adjust the exposure by tapping a bright spot on the screen. This all happened in seconds—fast enough, in fact, for the Japanese guy to get his photo successfully before the presenter had moved to the next slide.

Perhaps this episode serves as a loose metaphor for the positive power of technology. Think about it: One person silently and quickly provided necessary information to help another person—a complete stranger, from another land—do something he needed to do. And perhaps this episode illuminates why events like Oracle OpenWorld continue to draw tens of thousands of people, even in an era when information can be delivered virtually and online for less money and hassle. Yes, digital forums and virtual meetings may be more efficient, but they don’t do a good job of putting human beings in touch with each other. That personal contact is an invaluable commodity that can’t yet be digitized.