Andreia Domingues

@AndreiaDomz

“Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology” — making sense of Web Summit…

Ten days passed since the last day of Web Summit, posters and signboards have been removed and the streets of Lisbon, returned to normal, especially around the area of Parque das Nações, where the event takes place.

People working in the offices surrounding the event, which happens to be my case, no longer have to face the traffic jams that turned roundabouts into black holes that swallowed, digested and regurgitated cars 20 minutes later.

There are no longer people walking around with badges proudly announcing their identity to the world — even if outside the conference, the attendant at McDonald’s didn’t show a particular interest in knowing the role of their ephemeral client at XYZ.

But despite all the hassle, jammed roads and sidewalks, there was that vibrancy of a city that, once in a year — and, as announced, for the next 10 years — becomes the capital of the tech world.

With around 70.000 people attending, tech leaders joining from all over the world and constant presence in the national news, there is much expectation from the people that weren’t able to attend when they inquire people that did so. Afterall, with so much people moving around, travelling from near and far something pretty special must have happened…

There is a certain look of disappointment then, when people ask me what I thought about Web Summit 2018 I tell them it was amazing, without much further development…I see they are expecting something more, perhaps a detailed description of a certain talk I watched, its main conclusions, or even any considerations about the venue or the organisation.

While in the past I felt the need to justify thoroughly why I enjoyed Web Summit, I no longer feel the need to do so. Perhaps because I have heard a talk on branding where the speaker reminded us of the irrationality of human beings, and the rationalisations / confabulations we use to justify our choices, just like Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman warned us about, or because I feel there are things that matter most.

It is not about the talks, not the celebrity speakers, nor the quality of the food offered at the food courts, and even not the amounts of merchandising offered (although I really like merchandising). It is in the air…

Just walking through the pavilions, glancing at the badges, the company stalls, the startup stands, and understanding the mix of people that come to Lisbon at this time of the year, one can breathe a general feeling of excitement and promise.

Few years ago, when Portugal was facing a deep crisis, and many of its young people were trying to work elsewhere, where they could be exposed to latest in tech, it would be impossible to imagine, that one day those empty pavillions would host some time later, such a crowd.

In those rooms, over three days, there are indeed represented companies and organisations with enough power to shape the world. From the news agencies, which via what they broadcast enter the homes and moods of many people everyday, to the tech leaders whose platforms are used multiple times per day to satisfy needs of connectedness and belonging of all humans, to humanitarian organizations dealing with the world’s largest problems…they are all there.

In one of the talks, the Innovation Director of United Nations World Food Programme, coincidently one of my former bosses, told the panel moderator, when she was inquiring about ways to address the water problems in the planet, glancing at the other panelists also, in a friendly and humorous tone “as long as we are tackling all all the world’s problems, let’s talk about water…”.

Going from talk to talk, sometimes I felt the urge, to call previous speakers and make them sit and talk with someone just now making a new point. To some extend, it seemed that some of the very key players shaping today’s society were here under the same room, for three days. And it was a matter of making the right connections to get, indeed, some of the world’s problems addressed, if not fixed.

If we think about it there is no committee, nor organisation that gathers together under the same room such complete array of influencers, all sharing the same square feet for 72 hours. All have their own specific forums, but there are not many structures that that mix the people in those forums.

Contrary to other tech meetups, conferences and gatherings Web Summit is not about learning new tools, or the details about specific technologies, but the place to get an high level of understanding of the trends shaping the world today.

Certain topics were pervasive, appearing here and there in talks in the most diverse stages. Sustainability, fake news, women empowerment, mindfulness and authenticity made their way into many different conversations.

From Apple’s opening speech talking about the sustainability of its headquarters fully powered by renewable energy, to the appeal launched by the President of Google.org, for the need for Women in Tech, to the queues to Headspace mindfulness cave inside the Google booth, to the claims from the President of Film and TV of Live Nation that produced Lady Gaga’s documentary that authenticity is the key ingredient that she is looking for in an artist and the athlete instagramers that defined it as their key asset, these topics found their way into the speech of many tech business leaders, putting the discussion on the technology itself on a secondary plan.

More and more the notion of technology that can be used for good or evil and requires one to take sides — with pledges for a better web from the inventor of the web himself Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, and requests to sign a petition for digital peace from Microsoft — was shared.

Ev Williams declared that algorithms cannot be used to determine quality of content, in a world that what catches attention and virality, is not always what has most quality, implying that what technology declares as good is not necessarily humanly good.

It seems that gone are the days in which we were so excited and surprised with the evolution of technology that that was the main focus of discussion, while today identifying and determining the consequences of its application deserves much more attention, and at times, apprehension.

It is not surprising then, that while trying to identify a uniting thread for all the different talks, and stages — at any point there were more than 10 stages — running discussions in parallel, I bumped in one thought that serves as conducting line - expressed by the moderator of the healthconf stage. Yes, health conference stage, not the binate.io stage nor other stage solely devoted to technology.

Quoting the biologist E.O. Wilson she mentioned that we live in a world with “paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology”…

If fact we respond with primitive, paleolithic, flight or fight reactions to things made real by the godlike technology we were able to develop — as in the immersive experiences in VR and AR or in the fear of being replaced by robots. Governments and humanitarian institutions trying to catch up, and intervene in the evolutionary desert that separates the two periods, the primitive and the tech sapiens world.

The prime-minister of Serbia, received quite favorable reactions from the audience, and explained the efforts her government is making to make the country more tech-savvy. Leaders of different humanitarian agencies and initiatives explained their thoughts in how to use technology to build a better world, showing a willingness to surpass their sometimes anachronic starting points.

Well, one of the tools to address the chasm, suggested by the moderator of the healthconf stage, is mindfullness, the capacity to respond in the better manner possible to all the challenges posed by new technology.

In fact if we look all around us, and at our own experience, we can see that people are trying to find ways to cope with the change that technology introduced — in the past few weeks, headspace and meditation came up with several conversations with friends and colleagues…and it starts to make perfect sense now those queues for the headspace mindfulness booth at a tech conference like Web Summit.

This is the ultimate reflection that while technolgy sometimes seems to be forged by gods — even surpassing the capacity its human creators have to understand it- it is used every day buy human beings whose emotions are not yet equipped to deal with it in the best way and that remain fundamentally indecisive regarding whether to use it for good or bad.

If I still see some disappointment in your eyes, and you are not convinced about why I enjoyed Web Summit, I would completely understand, to some extent you would have to be there…

The good news is the content has been recorded and available on YouTube, and one of ways to make Web Summit last, at least until next year’s edition, is to watch some of the talks, now and then, as you would watch Ted Talks.

Even for people that were there, since there were more than 10 stages running in parallel, it was impossible to watch all the talks. The one that gave me the conducting thread I watched on the weekend after Web Summit ended — so there may be more hidden gems.

Since the topics were also big-picture, none of them runs the risk of being outdated in a one year timeframe. Unless robots takeover the world in that time, they remain relevant to be watched and reviewed throughout the months that separate us from the next Web Summit.

So while I tried to give you a bit of the flavour of the athmosphere and debates that make Web Summit such an exciting place to be, you can now do watch some of the talks, and recreate some of that experience for yourself, so that you are ready to see it for yourself when the next edition comes.

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