Temporary autonomous mercantile zones


Conferences typically have two official parts, talks (including big keynotes, little presentations in small gatherings, and everything in between) and the trade show floor. The talks are what people come for and are what brings press attention to the conference. The trade show floor pays the bills.

Trade show floors are infinite grids of elaborate temporary architecture, with each plot of land covered in concrete and cheap carpet and leased to a vendor for the duration of the show. The plots are sized according to how much the vendor pays for their sponsorship. On the plots, vendors and their marketing event companies build simple or elaborate booths, like the sukkōt of the Feast of the Tabernacles, only with no roofs. Also unlike a sukkah, the walls of a booth may, in fact, sway in the wind, or if a vendor walks behind them and knocks them down.

Some vendors have small ground height booths, but most go up, so that they can be seen from afar. Unfortunately, with every vendor “going up,” the effect is often lost and you end up with an air space arms race. I’ve seen a marketing manager from one company snarling at another because the second company’s booth cast a shadow on the first.

The trade show floor is a gathering; it is constructed quickly knowing it is only temporary, and demolished just as quickly. But in between, it’s a linear descendent of the oldest traditions of human commerce: the agora. Because to this giant assemblage of bright booths come booth staff—people like me—and conference attendees. Some attendees come to talk to vendors because they have a need to fill; most come for freebies. At this conference, the freebies include brochures, keychains, cheap electronic gizmos, stuffed animals, alcohol, and—critically important—coffee. And so people meet and trade. Maybe not directly, but they may take the first steps to an agreement. It’s a ritual that hasn’t changed in thousands of years.