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Sad about the economy? Dream about the future

The Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco is an annual gathering of digital thinkers and futurists. But when does talk of changing the world turn into impractical escapism?

SAN FRANCISCO--The wild days of Web 2.0 may have thrown their last sheep. Here's how you can tell that things have gotten serious: at O'Reilly Media and Techweb's Web 2.0 Summit this week, people actually showed up for breakfast.

That's because they probably weren't out as late. The party scene at tech conferences tends to be a bacchanalia--take South by Southwest Interactive, with enough events to make any little black book burst at the seams, or TechCrunch50 a few months ago, where rumor has it that a high-profile dot-commer got so drunk at an afterparty that conference organizers politely asked him to delete some intoxicated Twitter posts.

The buttoned-up Web 2.0 Summit had only one legitimate blowout: the launch party for News Corp.'s MySpace Music. The venue was the city's stately Old Mint, a landmarked Greek Revival building dating back to the 1870s that, true to its name, used to house the manufacturing of money--a harsh irony in these post-boom days.

To be sure, the annual Web 2.0 Summit is intended to be a more highbrow affair in comparison to its more sprawling Web 2.0 Expo sibling. Under the glass chandeliers and marble pillars of the downtown Palace Hotel, an ornate vestige of a bygone San Francisco, the attitude was all business. But with the economy in the tank, and dot-com dreams getting shattered by the day with each layoff announcement, it was probably a little bit more businesslike than usual.

At a Web 2.0 Summit start-up mock-pitch event called Launchpad, organizer John Battelle says the companies onstage would not be fly-by-night start-ups, but rather emerging companies with solid business models and the potential to have a big social impact. Josh Lowensohn/CNET Networks

With a "Web meets world" theme, the speakers weren't trendy dot-com entrepreneurs, but rather industry leaders like former Vice President Al Gore and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, as well as celebrities such as cyclist Lance Armstrong and The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan. For a start-up mock-pitch event called "Launchpad," conference organizer John Battelle reminded the audience that the companies onstage would not be fly-by-night start-ups, but rather emerging companies with solid business models and the potential to have a big social impact.

But this sort of discussion can get ahead of itself. A conference about changing the world, though its intentions may be wholly pragmatic, can devolve into starry-eyed futurism when the present needs so much attention. This was something that began to rear its head when venture capital veteran John Doerr called the recession "the greatest economic opportunity of our lifetimes" and when Intel CEO Paul Otellini, despite having just said some somber words about the recession and having urged solidarity as we "get through this thing," paraded out a shiny new "smart camera" prototype that elicited plenty of oohs and ahhs upon demonstrating that it could translate Chinese into English.

"I like coming here," Otellini said to the audience. "It's a respite from, sort of, watching the stock market crash every day, and think about what the future is going to hold from us."

He's right; talking about the future, and listening to industry luminaries do so, is important. On the other hand, it can happen at the expense of the present. Trendy "health 2.0" companies are exciting, but the more pressing problem in the United States is that millions of Americans can't afford health care coverage, let alone a 23andMe spit test.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom hails Barack Obama's campaign mastery of social media. Josh Lowensohn/CNET Networks

In a panel about how the Web is changing politics, digerati icon Arianna Huffington and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom hailed Barack Obama's campaign's mastery of social media and acknowledged that the new president-elect needs to keep using these powerful tools when he inherits a national mess in January. They were less descriptive, though, regarding how.

Elon Musk, the PayPal co-founder now at the helm of troubled electric-car start-up Tesla Motors, took the stage on Friday afternoon and spoke candidly about his company's issues. After the economic meltdown, Tesla nixed a plan to raise about $100 million because it would've involved "very difficult terms" with investors. (The company raised $40 million instead.) He used a military analogy to describe the carmaker's subsequent layoffs: "(It's the) difference between sort of special forces and regular Army, and if you're going to get through a really tough need to have a really high level of dedication and talent."

But when Battelle, interviewing Musk onstage, asked if the beleaguered Tesla would actually make money, the serial investor replied, "Yeah, yeah, absolutely!" and said he still believes in Tesla's strategy: release a six-figure sports car, the Roadster, first, then eventually move on to more affordable electric vehicles. "It's important to emphasize that the point of Tesla, the reason I funded it and put so much time into it, is to get to mass-market electric cars," Musk said. "To get there, you need to start with something."

The digital futurism didn't make its way to MySpace's party on Thursday night, with performances by Lionel Richie and paparazzi staple DJ AM. It was a big success: the Old Mint was packed to its gilded walls with Valley notables from VC legend Ron Conway to actor-turned-entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher. But the atmosphere was tinged with an acknowledgment that the Web 2.0 Summit and the MySpace afterparty, dual doses of Old San Francisco and dot-com glory, could be the last such revelry for quite some time.

Layoffs were just the tip of the iceberg. In the tech industry's meet-and-greet culture, the conference and event circuit is the next to get hit hard by the economic slowdown, partygoers predicted. O'Reilly's own Web 2.0 Expo in Tokyo had already been canceled earlier this fall, with an employee citing lack of sponsor interest. John Battelle announced to the audience that next year's Web 2.0 Summit would be held not at the Palace but at a less glitzy Westin hotel down the street.

Some small conferences, particularly those held outside the United States that rely on Valley types to jet across an ocean or two for attendance, were also gossiped about as big question marks. Individuals were remarkably candid about their companies' own chances: "I give myself four, six months," one entrepreneur told me.

Maybe, once the constant talk of saving the world had subsided, the Internet's thinkers were finally willing to focus on what's happening now. Or maybe they're just more honest after a few drinks.

A correction was made at 2:11 p.m. PT: O'Reilly Media co-produces the Web 2.0 Summit with Techweb.