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IAM Weekend 17 Recap — the Renaissance of Utopias

“Utopias should never come without an expiration date” — Bruce Sterling, pictured above as he and Jasmina Tešanović closed out the weekend’s talks. Photo credit unknown.

Pre-script: This post will be more casual than my other writing here on Medium —so far, most of the work I’ve shared has been generally ‘academic’ or journalistic in tone — but I wanted to be able to talk about broader ideas & projects that don’t necessarily call for so much pedanticism. So if you’re into it, keep reading!

The Renaissance of Utopias

As far as tech conferences go, there’s something decidedly different about IAM Weekend which I had the pleasure of attending last week and weekend in Barcelona. This isn’t your typical tech conference — can I really even call it that? It’s definitely a conference, and it definitely broaches tech-related topics, but… it doesn’t feel like a tech conference.

Maybe this is because the folks who organise IAM Weekend and all the other IAM initiatives make a point to not just call everyone family, but to really treat us like we are. Hugs, smiles and open discussions abound, even for a shy lurker like myself. People were just so friendly. I’ll give you that I might be spending too much time at code conferences and not enough time at idea conferences (is that even a thing outside of IAM?) but the openness and excitement to discuss and understand the Internet as a culture, as a technology, as a tool, as a movement really stood out to me. There we were, just 300+ curious Internet-lovers packed into an auditorium discussing life through the lens the Internet and it’s technologies afford us.

Not to be a total nerd about all the rich discussions that took place over the four day event, but I think I very well may have found my new happy place and it’s IAM Weekend.

IAM Weekend 2017 — The Renaissance of Utopias

This year’s theme was The Renaissance of Utopias, or more simply: exploring potential futures. Given all the doom and gloom in the media these last 100+ days (*sigh*) one might find oneself hard-pressed to look to the future with any real sense of optimism. But IAM proved tenfold that we can, and should. Given the looming French elections, as someone who’s called Paris home for the last six years, this was a message I was happy to receive.

Of course now we know the results: France voted against Le Pen. Which is awesome! However, this is not to be confused with voting for Macron. And while the new president of France still needs to prove himself, the tech-minded Europhile has a lot going for him including being among the first to ‘survive’ a fake news attack, being hacked mere days before the final election.

This guy is in tune with digital transformation much more so than any of the other headline stealing politicians we’ve been privy to of late because he understands not only the economic potential of digital technologies, but also how they might influence society from a cultural POV (or seems to at least.) In that sense, Macron would have fit right in at IAM. And here’s hoping he lives up to his promises because France could really benefit from a healthy dose of optimism.

But enough with the politics — here are some ideas that emerged over the IAM Weekend that really resonated with me:

  • Sciences & humanities (finally) have a common language and it’s digital tech.
  • The future is fluid: nuance is king.
  • Internet as a culture is borderless, and so are our feelings.
  • Asking questions is more important than having all the answers.

Science vs Humanities → Science ❤ Humanities

Where historically the Sciences and the Humanities had no common language with which to communicate, tech has emerged as the perfect go-between for the historically rivalling fields. As it’s woven its way into pretty much every aspect of our daily lives, a new space has emerged in which the Sciences and the Humanities can play, interact and overlap without (too much) worry of reprisal.

If you want a more in-depth look into this subject from the POV of the arts specifically, feel free to peek at some of my research.

The Future is Fluid → Be Like Water

The Weekend opened with a clip of Bruce Lee talking about how we should all “be like water.” It got some laughs from the audience, but as the conference progressed, it became apparent that there is less and less room in our world for strict, rigid systems: not only should we be like water, the systems we build should too.

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.”

In other words, nuance wins out over nostalgia in this day and age. Hindsight may always be 20/20 and it’s certainly easy enough to glue bits and pieces of the past together and romanticise how “things were better before”, but beyond that idea being inaccurate it’s also not very Internet. Nuance on the other hand, is. And in the most supreme way! The internet is culture, but also houses expressions of other cultures within itself. A digital space that has created room for all of the subtle differences and distinctions in expression, meaning, response… the Internet might as well be the definition of nuance. Oh wait.

If Nuance is King, Empathy is Queen

Technology is so enmeshed in our daily lives and global culture at this point — we recognise that it can‘t be approached as this thing that is separate from all the other industries anymore. Does anyone remember Computer Class in high school? I remember one particularly underwhelming assignment that involved signing up for Hotmail and subscribing to newsletters… Oh how far we’ve come! And thank God. A class that “teaches computers” just doesn’t make sense anymore. The Internet is no longer trapped inside our clunky family computer. Instead it floats freely between our phones, watches, laptops, desktops, tablets, cameras, clothing, homes, you name it. The many nuances afforded to us by the Internet and it’s technologies are all part of how we do things, not just why. To understand the many how’s, we must look at what we’re doing and really try to understand the ways in which technology affects the thing being done, and the person doing the thing.

Really, the bleed over began decades ago — Internet may be a culture of cultures, but offline those cultures and communities are now expecting to be heard too, which isn’t surprising. Or it shouldn’t be anyways. If Internet technologies can expect to bleed over into real world objects, Internet communities can certainly expect to bleed over into real world spaces. The Internet may be digital, but it’s effect and impact are decidedly not only. Relatively borderless, open and ungoverned (let’s cross our fingers on that one…And no pitchforks please, I said relatively…) it may not be the Wild Wild West it once was (who else misses Geocities and Angelfire? ICQ and MSN? Asianavenue, Apt107, Xanga? Ok maybe not, but I know some of you out there still have a soft spot for Webrings! Whatever your brand of OG Internet, we can all agree, Pre-Facebook and even pre-Friendster and MySpace, the Internet was a very different space….) but it’s still a pretty great place to discover ourselves. The internet is after all, neither bad nor good. It’s simply a reflection of ourselves as individuals, and as a group.

Asking Questions > Having all the Answers

This is less an Internet thing, and more a community and industry thing, but it was one of the biggest (and surprising,) take-aways for me. As a perpetual outsider (digital nomad, expat, and Internet geek at your service) I’ve always felt like I needed to stumble onto the answer to something? anything? substantial — an answer of some kind, a problem that I’d solved — before I could join in the type of conversations IAM fosters. But the Weekend reminded me in more ways than one that bringing well thought out questions to the table is just as valid, if not more so, than waiting until you’ve solved for x and wrapped your solution up in an easily digestible package for everyone to admire. Really it’s about having the courage to look at things with a sense of hope and excitement, while still asking the harder questions about where the Internet is headed, and the ways in which this might impact or influence us.

So let’s ask more questions.

Because to be optimistic in the face of all the post-apocalyptic shit going down around the world is to recognise that the Internet and it’s many tools and technologies not only create a common culture for us — that is, the Internet as culture — but also gives us room to redefine our experience beyond the borders or our homes, our communities, and our countries.