Yesterday Vanity Fair and Intelligence Squared gathered some of the world’s leading innovators, influential thinkers and tech sector big guns in one room for their Digital Summit. Examining life, love and work in the digital era, the Summit explored how the internet has already changed our world and the superabundance of change still to follow in the online world. Here are some musings from the Delany & Co team:
The hopes of the pioneers – thoughts by Simon Lerner
The event started with a discussion on the high hopes of the early pioneers that the net would mean empowerment to all. Cory Doctorow, sci-fi author and prolific blogger, spoke of the internet’s continued capacity to open the doors of dissent and speak truth to power. Alan Rusbridger provided the counterbalance. Why would or should the Internet mean a fundamental change in the relationship between government and citizen? Some principles, such as journalistic or political confidentiality, had been hundreds of years in the making and we should discard them with caution. This was an interesting perspective from the man who gave voice to Wikileaks and fought for Edward Snowden. The key takeaway – perhaps that we should be wary of viewing the ethics of the internet as a new beginning.
Is Monopoly a Dirty Word? – thoughts by Luc Delany
It was clear from the discussion that no-one agrees what a monopoly is, what market forces apply, who Google’s competitors are and even if ‘monopoly’ itself is a dirty word. The polar views that a market free-for-all is just fine and that all big companies should be treated as utilities, clearly do not work in an increasingly complex world of networked digital businesses. European regulators (and yes, UK is still European for now) are too quick to call large and successful American Corporations dangerous monopolies whilst lauding European ones as global success stories. If there’s an uneven playing field we should be looking at lowering barriers for everyone, not raising barriers and fencing out the innovators and disruptors.
Artificial Intelligence: the good, the bad and the unimaginable – thoughts by Samir Nanji
It’s genuinely astounding to see how far Artificial Intelligence (AI) has come and how far it can go – reaching far beyond the mere sci-fi interpretations accumulated over the years through literature and cinema. IBM Watson, IBM’s AI or Cognitive Computing Lab, gave a short demo providing a glimpse into its potential. One of the frightening and potentially most useful aspects is AI’s ability to improve as people use it; it’s always getting smarter, anything it learns in one instance can be immediately transferred to others. And instead of one single program, it’s an aggregation of diverse software engines—its logic and language engines might operate on different code, on different chips, in different locations—all cleverly integrated into a unified stream of intelligence. While it’s exciting to see pioneers pushing the boundaries of the human condition and improve limitations of human ability, it is a relief to hear that a.) There is at least an Ethics Board (even if it is run by Google) and Conferences on Ethics are taking place and b.) While there is a lot of buzz and conversation about the potential of AI, a lot of it yet still has to be researched, developed and implemented.
Who are we on the web? thoughts by Victoria Read
The rise of the social web has seen us interact with others through technology in an increasing range of ways – posting on Twitter, sharing photographs on Instagram, inhabiting alternative worlds through avatars. This session asked what this has done to our sense of identity. One remarkable contribution came from a woman in the audience who had two Twitter accounts: one for when she wants to be nice; another when she wants to be nasty. Initially I was shocked. Is the internet leading us to have split personalities? Is it turning us into duplicitous narcissistic over-sharers who hide behind the anonymity the internet affords us? The reassuring answer came from the ever-interesting Cory Doctorow. In his preferred method of digital interaction – the good old fashioned email – he is a different person to each correspondent. Of course he is. We are all different people in all of our human interactions. We are not the same person when speaking to our grandmother on the phone, as in a business meeting or when we are chatting to mates in the pub. It was a useful reminder that the internet is just a reflection of human nature – it’s not good, it’s not bad – and that many of its challenges are not new either: bullying, addiction, safety, privacy. We just need to evolve our tactics for dealing with them, along with the evolution of the tools we use to communicate.
Is the internet a failed utopia? thoughts by Deepti Bal
The event rounded off with a grand finale debate chaired by the one and only Jeremy Paxman, in which four speakers – Andrew Keen and Frank Pasquale (for the motion) vs Peter Barron and Beth Simone Noveck (against the motion) – went head to head on whether ‘The Internet is a Failed Utopia’. Clearly the internet has changed from its early vision to the reality we have today. For the likes of Keen and Pasquale, their hopes have been obliterated by the revelations of big brother governments hawkishly monitoring our personal data. Add to that, the negative impact the internet has had on inequality, the challenges of internet addictions, sensory and information overloading and the balkanisation of tech giants; the web seems far from delivering us to the Elysian Fields.
The verdict of the audience, however, did not align with such internet pessimism. For Barron and Noveck – and the majority of the audience – the last two decades have undoubtedly opened up an unprecedented world of abundance. It’s not just as consumers of physical goods that we have been benefited, but as users of information from websites to e-books and conversations with people on the other side of the world. The true potential of the Internet as a force for good has only recently emerged: the boom in the sharing economy, crowdfunding and open-source innovation point towards a paradigm shift where collaboration and co-operation could form a new world order. Clearly nobody argues that we are there yet or that the internet is free from challenge or peril; but as Novek points out, the world of the web is not a destination but a journey – a tool to enable humanity to move closer to that ever illusive utopia.
Photo Credit: Vanity Fair Intelligence Squared Digital Summit