The tech that does or doesn’t matter: thoughts after #cph150
A couple of weeks ago, I was flown in to Copenhagen where I spent 3 days talking to strangers and a handful of friends about the future of the internet.
Thomas Madsen-Mygdal who I’d only met briefly a couple of times over the last 10 years invited me to take part in a small event named #cph150 which was hosted by the much larger Techfestival.
The premise of the event was to have 150 people come up with a manifesto to respond to the growing concerns of a community of web practitioners. Exploitation of data & artificial intelligence, machine learning with a bias, the mental health consequences of social media addiction, no stone was left unturned over a 2 day session which moved around Copenhagen’s more obscure hipster-friendly venues.
Many people in the room had very high profiles online, many were very wealthy, most of them were white men in their late 30s to late 60s. Many were investors. So far, so usual. The closest I got to going to something like this was Foocamp in 2009 before hardware was understood or appreciated. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I was 28 and in no mood to justify my line of work to a bunch of American white men saying web 2.0 a lot. I’m 36 now and getting more mellow in my old age, so I said yes, even if I did end up being one of the only hardware people in the room again.
I ended up taking a back seat on the creation of what became the now published ‘Copenhagen Letter of Tech’ as it was far more interesting to try to read into what the event’s newly formed community was worried about.
I *think* what was being expressed was this: We built the web, but it doesn’t matter.
The web has turned out to be just another communication tool to reflect the good and bad of society. No more, no less. The good in the world is still mostly shaped by governments, regulation, NGOs, the UN, the EU (GDPR), philanthropists and volunteer organisations.
Throughout the two day conversation, I felt people were disappointed the web hadn’t been able to live up to its perceived almost-socialist-but-ultimately-neo-liberal promise. Many said they wanted to engage with governments more. Many talked about open data for cities. Mostly, it was unclear what exactly the web could do to address ISIS, sexism, racism, violence, addiction. Because it can’t. The web has become as useful or useless as people want it to be. No more, no less.
That week, I’d read the Guardian’s article on the presence of plastic in our salt, only a few days after reading an article on the presence of plastic in our drinking water. The web won’t help us with these kinds of problems. The web won’t help reconstruct houses affected by Harvey, Irma or Maria, the web has its limits.
And that’s what people seemed to be disappointed by. The web appeared to be the most human-like communication tool we had, but that also meant our greed, boredom and envy is now built into it. It’s limits are human.
Love, care, support is the stuff of people who work face to face with others day to day. People who hold other people’s hands, who put one foot in front of the other and donate time, blood, food and knowledge. People who volunteer at food banks, house refugees, foster children, work at companies that decide to cap flight costs at $99 when a hurricane is coming. The web enables these actions, but it does not create them, it does not create good leadership out of thin air, it does not know what the *right thing* is to do on its own (otherwise Trump’s Twitter account would have self-destructed a long time ago).
It might just be a mere tool. A simple hammer.
I felt it was disappointing for many at #cph150 to think that what they have made millions from is a hammer. But that’s all it is, possibly. That’s perhaps why Negroponte tried to build a laptop for the developing world and why the Gates Foundation work the life sciences as applied to nations with complex socio-economic needs. ‘The revolution will not be televised’ requires an update: ‘The revolution will not be on forked on Github’. The hard work of the 21st century might just need to be done face to face, in politics, with regulators, by volunteering, by showing up, by organising by acting and facing complicated problems head on.
I’m trying to do my bit with the iotmark, in my industry, but I’m also perfectly conscious that the harder work belongs to the rest of my life, with my consumption habits, with my time, with the people around me far far away from the web.
There should be more of that.
Before the event started in earnest, I flew in and took a train, suitcase in tow, to the Louisiana museum of modern art north of Copenhagen. They were putting on a retrospective of Marina Abramovic’s work and I found myself thinking a lot about her work over the following two days. I wonder what she would have made of the group’s attempt to ‘fix tech’.
The thing about performance art is that everyone is invited to take part and if they want to they WILL have an interaction with the project. Abramovic’s most controversial piece, if you’re super conservative, is walking through a doorway flanked by a couple standing there naked. You have to squeeze yourself between their bodies, holding on to their shoulders for support. You have to choose who to face and who to present your ass to. It’s a strange and intimate public gesture.
I would have wanted the Copenhagen Letter of Tech to feel like that. To feel a little difficult, a little fun, but to touch you and make you think. I would have wanted it to be plastered on the streets, graffitied around Europe, like the poems glued to the streets of Venice or the stacks of posters crumbling under their own weight in Kreuzberg. The physical world would be a perfect place to remind ourselves that the web doesn’t matter as much as action does.
I wish the Copenhagen Letter of Tech much success as a cry for help. I just hope there’s someone out there listening, other than the machines.