The Next Web: the biggest smallest tech festival in the world

“Hi, I need to validate my press ticket…” “Press ticket? Are you sure? … How did you get that? Can you show me your ID, please?

That is how my adventure at The Next Web Conference starts: the most intimate tech festival on the planet¹. On the list of speakers are names that I have never heard of, but they belong to people who have changed my life forever. Representatives of Google, Nike, Vimeo, Uber, Wetransfer, Tinder, 9GAG, Reddit,… the list goes on and on.

“Who are you going to see today?” the guy at the service counter asks. “No clue” I answer. With over a hundred keynotes divided over nineteen tracks you know beforehand that you are going to miss out on some amazing things and, remarkable or not, it is exactly that fear of missing out what gives me a sense of freedom that I have never experienced at a conference like this before. That is, if a conference like this outside TNW exists.

I arrive early. Across a wooden bridge over water and reed I walk towards the main stage. A young man with a tray of paper coffee cups walks in shorts and sneakers through the wet grass. Only his EarPods give away the illusion that there is not a field of small tents camping behind the exhibition space.

I sit down as I wait until the doors of the Gashouder open. Together with the people around me I sneak closer to the WiFi signal while I scroll through the virtual campfire that is the TNW app. There is a list of people visiting the festival and matching my field. Professionally and, well, literally. I look up from my phone to see if I spot any familiair faces. I am not sure.

The tables where lifechanging handshakes have been made the day before have now turned into tables for one. Even when they are shared with four other people at the same time.

That is until a woman on my left warns the woman to my right. “Just so you know, it is wet over there.” she says, while pointing to the corner of the bench that we are sitting on. The woman to my right jumps up and sweeps her skirt. “Thanks.” They both smile at each other as the doors open. This is it.

the men’s room

Across the main stage bellows a voice: “Ladies and gentlemen…”. The stage resembles a boxing ring. “…we are about to start.” In the ring, Pep Rosenfeld, founder of comedy club Boom Chicago and moderator of the Future Generations track opens the second day of the festival together with Boris Veldhuizen van Zanten, founder of The Next Web and dressed in a strikingly unblemished, white suite.

Boris talks about him meeting, one of the names on the list of speakers that I do recognise, for the first time. Apparently they met in a men’s room in New York. Only after they had a pee together and walked to the room where they both were expected he realised who it was.

In that light I start my first edition of this conference: I am going to see, hear and meet people that I could have only dreamt of meeting just before now… without me even knowing it.

a miserable optimist

The first speaker on my list is Andrew Keen who, in response to his latest book ‘How to fix the future’², insists that we need to teach our children to develop skills such as creativity and empathy to preserve and to strengthen our agency as human beings living in this rapidly changing world. A quality no algorithm could replace, a quality that enables us to fix the future.

After his talk I meet Keen between some stacks of his own book. I ask him if he considers himself to be a pessimist or an optimist. “A miserable optimist” he answers. I try to find a smile on his face but am in doubt if I have found one. To cheer him up I buy his book. He signs the front page with “Enjoy”. No exclamation mark. But compared to the image that is build around him³ I consider it to be a surprisingly positive message.

designing the impossible

The second keynote I attend is given by Nelly Benhayoun. She is presented as ‘the Willy Wonka of design and tech’. Her go-to when it comes to design? To “design the impossible”.

That is why she started her own school: The University of the Underground⁴: a tuition free, postgraduate university located in the underground of urban spaces. Their mission is to actively question knowledge, power and politics and to support non-established, non-lineair and unconventional practices.

Sounds to good to be true? Well, maybe it is. At the end of her keynote she asks multiple times if the entrepreneurs in the audience could financially support ‘The Underground’, where, apparently, ‘the contemporary Velvet Underground’s, The Smiths’ and the Joy Division’s’⁵ go to study. But her keynote ends on a more positive note: the audience sings while she is handed a little cake. It’s her birthday.

a shift in expectations

The room is packed when I make my way to David Mattin, Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching. Together with some ‘early adopters’ I decide to sit on the ground in front as there is not enough space for everybody to take a seat. We smile at each other, as if we are waiting front row for our favourite band to start.

We get a one man show instead. Given by one of the most renowned speakers when it comes to trends. Mattin describes trends as new ways to provide people in their basic human needs. “Trends” he says “change what we expect from the world around us.” The trend that David gave away that day? Virtual companions: virtual friendships between man and computer as a result of a shift in our relationship with AI.

To illustrate this, he ends his foresight by showing a commercial for Gatebox: a virtual girlfriend kissing you goodbye when you leave for work and drinking tea together with you at night⁶. “I know what you are thinking” he continues after showing the video …“that is fucking weird!”

The audience laughs. I can only wonder why we still think this is weird.

how to fix my phone

Later that day I am lost in the wondrous world of WikiHow. Not because some CEO of the how-to website is speaking but because I dropped my ‘virtual companion’ in one of the bathrooms. While the democratization of space travel is being discussed on stage⁷ I look desperately for an answer on another burning question: how to fix my phone? But my effort is in vain: the only remedy prescribed by the web is time and luck.⁸

I close my iPad as I walk outside. I order a beer and, with the sun on my face, I sit down and do nothing but look around. The tables for one are now full of people. They laugh, they talk, they drink together and, fair enough, sometimes they look at their phone. As I flip through the paper timetable I still don’t recognise any names but I cannot wait to hear their stories… or to miss out on some of them.

Two beers later I lock myself in one of the bathroom stalls again while staring at a strange looking fly on the wall that I would have never noticed if I had my phone around. Somehow the fly reminds me of simpler times where I would go out camping with my parents and play in the dirt.

When leaving the bathroom stall I make way for a little old man with a yellow cap. He looks like one of those lost hikers any festival is somehow familiair with. Only when I am washing my hands I realise why it took me so long to render him. That little old man was Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired⁹. For a moment I wonder if I should keep washing my hands a little longer to see if I could meet him again but then I realise that the moment has already happened and that there is no use to capture it another time. I smile: even better than meeting

  1. as said by CNBC and mentioned on the official website of TNW —
  2. How to Fix the Future —
  3. Andrew Keen is often mentioned as the antichrist of Sillicon Valley
  4. University of the Underground —
  5. referring to the description on Nelly Benhayoun’s personal website —
  6. as seen in the Gatebox commercial —
  7. Ariel Ekblaw of MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative —
  8. “The rice trick endures because it sounds right, even if it isn’t .” —
  9. prove that Kevin Kelly indeed looked like a hiker and that Boris’ suite is forever unblemished —