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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The tech insider crowd partied here at Code Conference this week, but many couldn't shake the sense that the world's colossal problems are outrunning the breakthroughs their industry is promising.

The stage brimmed with talk of flying electric taxis and space tourism. Optimists flashed "we can fix that" smiles. But there wasn't enough tech-fueled bravado to lift the shadows: Runaway climate change. Misinformation-fueled erosion of democracy. And a planet where isolationism is rising as globalization falters.

Driving the news: Code Conference, the venerable tech gathering founded by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, returned after a two-year break — and as a smaller event in a new location. It marked, for many attendees, the first in-person industry event since the pandemic shut everything down in early 2020.

As to be expected, there was a lot of talk of huge advances set to arrive in the coming years.

Elon Musk talked about his plans for satellite internet and his broader ambitious for space travel to the moon and Mars, along with getting in some digs at rival space-loving billionaire Jeff Bezos.

The Larry Page-backed startup Kitty Hawk brought a prototype of its pilotless electric flying taxi to the conference.

  • CEO Sebastian Thrun talked about the potential for planes like Kitty Hawk's to run cheaper and use less energy even than electric cars.
  • Still, Thrun's company hasn't yet achieved lift-off. The CEO hopes to be the first test passenger later this year, once the company wins permission for flying beyond the line-of-sight of those at the controls.

Yes, but: Political and vaccine-related misinformation and a broad breakdown in truth and trust were also big topics of discussion — with those problems described in far more detail than proposed solutions.

  • Former CISA head Chris Krebs called for a "whole of society" response — an urgent but vague prescription. Even the more specific remedies he urged, such as stronger civic curriculum in schools, would take years to approve and longer still to have an impact.
  • Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also called misinformation a "hard problem" and said neither AI nor armies of human moderators will fully solve it.

Meanwhile: Attendees struggled to outline a coherent strategy to deal with the fraying of the U.S.-China relationship that once supported a truly global tech industry.

  • Nadella and AMD CEO Lisa Su both rejected the idea of fully decoupling the two countries' tech industries but acknowledged there are also national security issues that globalization failed to take into account. Neither offered much detail, though, on what a happy middle ground would look like.

The event closed out Wednesday with no consensus on how to take on these tough issues. There was, however, a discussion of the benefits of psychedelics, while a handful of volunteers received intravenous vitamins.

On a personal level, attendees struggled to figure out the proper way to greet one another, when to don masks and even how to make small talk after months of more transactional Zoom meetings.

  • Investor Roy Bahat, of Bloomberg Beta, compared it to the first day of kindergarten.
  • PR veteran Brooke Hammerling likened the gathering to "The Blip," from the Marvel film universe, in which half the population vanishes and five years pass after Thanos snaps his fingers.

Hammerling's late-night poker gathering was back as well, albeit with the notable absence of table regular Tony Hsieh, the longtime Zappos CEO who died during the pandemic.

Disclosure: Ina worked for Code organizer Recode and its predecessor All Things Digital from 2010 to 2016.

Go deeper

Oct 19, 2021 - Technology

Tarika Barrett: U.S. tech industry must become "more equitable"

Photo: Axios

The technology industry must become more equitable if it intends to solve its diversity problem, Tarika Barrett, CEO of Girls Who Code, said at an Axios virtual event on Tuesday.

Why it matters: Tech companies in the United States face a national reckoning on the lack of diversity in their workforce, with Black representation across Google, Facebook and Microsoft making up less than 7% of the workforce.

Ohio sues Biden admin over reversal of Trump-era abortion referral ban

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Photo: Justin Merriman/Getty Images

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration Monday over a Trump-era ban on abortion referrals that President Biden overturned earlier this month.

The big picture: The lawsuit aims to reinstate two measures included in the 2019 legislation that required federally funded family planning clinics to be "financially independent of abortion clinics," and refrain from referring patients for abortions.

Oklahoma Supreme Court temporarily blocks abortion restrictions

A pro-choice activist demonstrates outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 4, 2021. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday temporarily blocked three abortion restrictions set to take effect on Nov. 1.

Why it matters: The laws would place new limits on medication-induced abortions and require doctors who perform abortions to attain board certification in obstetrics and gynecology.