Hype, hubris, hope, heads in the sand, and some very cool stuff: A report on the Web Summit

A chunk of the Programmable City team attended the Web Summit in Dublin last week.  I was fortunate to be asked to MC the Machine Stage for Tuesday afternoon (on smart cities/smart cars), and also presented a paper, participated in a panel discussion, and chaired a private panel session, all on smart cities.  As well reported in the media, it was an enormous event attended by 22,000 people, with 600 speakers across nine stages, and hundreds of stands, many of which changed daily to accommodate them all.  No doubt a huge amount of business was conducted, personal networks extended, and thousands of pages of copy for newspapers, magazines and websites filed.

To me what was interesting about the event were the silences as much as what was presented and displayed.  There were loads of very interesting apps and technologies demoed, many of which will have real world impact.  That said, there was also a lot of hype, hubris, hope, self-promotion, buzzwords (to my ear ‘disruption’, ‘smart’, ‘platform’, ‘internet of things’ and ‘use case’ were used a lot), Californian ideology (radical individualism, libertarianism, neoliberal economics, and tech utopianism), and heads in the sand.  In contrast, there was an absence of critical reflection about the following three broad concerns.

Technological determinism and solutionism

There was a lot technological determinism and solutionism expressed at the Web Summit: speakers and exhibitors generally expressed a deep seated belief that all the world’s problems can be fixed with technology and that the world will be a fundamentally better place to live with the adoption of their tech solutions.  However, the most pressing problems facing people usually have causes that are deeply social, cultural, economic and political.  Technology might make it easier to manage particular issues, but in most cases will not fix it — poverty, for example, is the result of deep structural inequalities and multiple intersecting social, political and economic processes and will not be fixed by app.  And in many cases the problems being solved are relatively trivial — what some term ‘first world problems’ (e.g., being able to turn the coffee-maker on when five minutes from home so a fresh cup is there on arrival), rather than addressing key challenges to everyday living.  In this sense, they’re gadgets and lifestyle apps, not fundamentally disruptive, positive interventions.  Issues of political economy, politics, culture, social values, history, legacy integration, etc. are conveniently pushed to one side and forgotten, or asked to be forgotten. Indeed, the attitude expressed is often one of ‘we’ve developed this cool bit of technology therefore society should reorganise itself around my invention’ and ‘we know best and if only politicians, civil servants, government institutions, legal bodies, community groups, and activists would get out the way, our company/technology would make the world a better place’.  Of course, technology is just one ingredient in the mix, technologists one set of ‘experts’ diagnosing solutions, and Californian ideology just one worldview, amongst competing interests.  Yes, technology can be an important component of addressing an issue, but rarely is it the silver bullet.

Dark uses, unintended consequences, and ethics

With a couple of exceptions, there was practically no discussion concerning ethics, politics, social values, security, liabilities, and how many of the technologies, or the data they generate, can be used or reappropriated for different ends, including hacking, criminal ventures, surveillance, social sorting/redlining, anticipatory governance, and control creep, or deepen/widen inequalities rather than fix them.  And if you did try to raise them, the concern was quickly dismissed as either overblown, or as something that would not arise in this case because the technology and any partners were ‘trustworthy’,  or something that could be fixed with another bit of technology.  The mere mention of the word ‘regulation’ was liable to start hyperventilation.  People are right to be concerned about the above issues and so should the tech industry if for no other reason that they are bad for business and undermine trust.  There seems little point in tech developers keeping the discussion of such issues to in-house legal teams, or simply trying to brush them away, and it seems to me that they merit much wider collective consideration at forums such as the Web Summit.

Financing, business models, markets and use cases

From the talks I attended and chatting to folk it is not at all clear, especially in the absence of a direct revenue stream (i.e., seeking indirect revenue through advertising), austerity and a lot of competition, what the working business model of some technologies/services is other than to survive on grants, angel investors, crowdsourced donations and hope that a market emerges or another company purchases them.  There seemed to me to be a strong ‘build it and they will come approach’ in many cases, trying to identify or magic into being a use case that will persuade investors and users.  In many cases it kind of felt as if developers had invented something then looked for some way to use or sell it, rather than starting with a real world issue and trying to find a solution.  Or initial development was aimed at a particular niche market (e.g., fitness fanatics for wearables; rich tech-savvy yuppies for smart homes) and then sought to identify and leverage other use cases, often by trying to make something into a problem that required solving using digital technology.  Moreover, many of the technologies on display were derivative rather than truly innovative, and often quite mundane or mediocre, as evidenced by the similarity of demos along the rows of stands.  It’ll be interesting then to see which ones have created products and business models that will enable them to survive and thrive.

The Web Summit clearly plays a particular role for the digital tech industry, providing an event where people from hundreds of inter-related companies can meet and discuss what they are up to and new developments.  Whilst I can appreciate the desire to promote the digital tech industry and to be positive about technologies and their uses — and there was undoubtedly a lot of very useful technology and software on display — my sense is that a more critical edge that encourages discussion about the issues above more head-on would, on the one hand, actually be helpful to the industry by getting developers to consider more deeply the relationship between society, economy and technology, and points of resistance and failure (the nearest many got to this was to talk about design rather than ethics, politics, social values, etc.), and, on the other, make some of the talks and panels more interesting by giving them a bit of bite (rather than being glorified sales pitches or love-ins).  Whether the summit develops along those lines or not it was certainly an interesting event to attend to get a sense of how the tech industry sees and presents itself.

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  1. Pingback: Opening up smart cities: A report on the Smart City Expo World Congress | The Programmable City

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