The ideas I am taking home from Web Summit 2017 that not even Sophia can take away from me

Last Thursday was the last day of Web Summit. As I walked towards the centre stage for the final talk and realized it was full, I decided to take one last walk around the exhibition floor.

Time for reflection

I wanted to take those last minutes to soak in that atmosphere of excitement before I declared it final. Last year I ended Web Summit thinking I had had a great time, but this year the lessons and insights I was taking home seemed much clearer to me.

If the step counter app is accurate, during the Web summit I took around 43.037 steps (not counting with the opening night) — an average of 14.345 steps per day…and also probably the number of ideas competing for attention per attendee per day.

Having as starting point, things I have learned and reflected upon during the past year, I got to package almost everything I heard into 8 macro-ideas, to take home with me. Just one more from the 7 item list recommended for memorization purposes, but I am writing them here, so I won’t forget.

For the past year I have been learning some programming languages on my own (HTML, CSS, Javascript and Python) on platforms such as Coursera. While there are thousands of people worldwide enrolled in those courses, sometimes it is difficult to find in your immediate surroundings people already using these platforms for learning, or motivated to learn things slightly different from their previous former formal education. Without such immediate references, this path of continuous learning or learning topics beyond what you were previously used to, can, at times, feel lonely.

Here, far from isolated, these topics were given the stage. I was very glad to see a talk on the need for overall tech and coding literacy: like the speaker Rebecca Parsons of ThoughtWorks said, everybody should be able to read code just like everybody should be able to read and write despite not intending to be the next Hemingway.

Rebecca Parsons evangelizing the audience

And another talk on the future of learning, with the CEO of Coursera himself. It became clear that “learning how to learn” became a skill of its own — even according to some, one of the most relevant skills to navigate the need for flexibility and adaptation of our times (and by the way, the namesake of one the most successful courses on that platform to date, great fun to attend to).

Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera visibly happy with what Gina Gotthilf, VP of Growth of Duolingo, had to say

It turns out that despite the large numbers of attendance of the Web Summit, there is still a large part of the population in the world that is still not engaging actively with technology, nor trying to understand it better or leverage it for their personal and professional growth.

This community gathering here at the Web Summit acts in this respect as a guidepost and motivator for people traveling along the same path, that perhaps wouldn’t have the same level of awareness about their fellow travelers if there was not such place to gather.

As there are many positive things to be said about technology, there are also things to be cautious about. Up until now those darker aspects were, I feel, not as present in conferences and discussions about technology, where the positive spin used to dominate.

In fact, it took me a few episodes of the brilliantly written tv series “Black Mirror” to visualize the potential extent of the negative consequences of technology. In fact, I consider its writer, Charlie Brooker, one of the main visionaries in this field, more than many prominent tech leaders, that keep echoing similar visions of the future without presenting something new.

Comparing to last year, it is evident the increase in the number of talks, that mentioned darker side effects of technology and the behaviors of its protagonists. Margrethe Vestager the European Commissioner for Competition that imposed a 2.7 billion fine on Google claimed, on the opening night, that “we need to take algorithms to school, to teach them what they can and cannot do”, making repeated appeals for more accountability by the big players so that they don’t squash competition and innovation.

Robot Sophia, at the end of her debate with robot Einstein, claimed something along the lines “We have no desire to destroy humans… but we will take away your jobs, working is a drag anyways!” making a pause to end the sentence with her creepy smile or smirk (please someone design her a different smile, because this one gives me the chills). The questions of AI taking over human jobs are echoed more or less everywhere.

See?

Avast — the internet security company — in a talk with Garry Kasparov, showed the numerous threats to security they help prevent every day, making it obvious the vulnerability of each individual online.

On another talk one of the panelists from R/GA confessed he didn’t have and didn’t want to have a facebook account, and on a snippet I watched on TV afterwards, from Dr. Oz at the Web Summit, he claimed that people needed to disconnect now and then, because “it is when the technology is paused that the humans start”, that humans can focus on their lives.

Two of the talks I saw even referred directly to the “Black Mirror” series with a screenshot of one of the episodes, that for me is a vivid depiction, of where we could be heading to, if we don’t pay attention and take proper action.

Unless it turns into paranoia, I think it is healthy that the positive spin on technology is balanced with a grounded perspective on the less desirable outcomes, that it can have or is already having on people’s lives.

Black Mirror character not sure whether she will put a like in the questions being raised…
…nor the dark prophecies for the future

This year I came to appreciate and contemplate the power of the masses — for good and for bad — I confess lately, perhaps more for bad than for good.

But here, the stage was also given to situations in which the masses have been amazingly creative and key agents for building, not destroying, things.

There was one talk in each one of the speakers stopped the summary being made by the moderator to say that no, open source was not only relevant, but “open source rules the world”, mentioning examples where open source solutions created by developers on their spare times were often much more effective than privately held solutions.

In one of the last talks I saw, the CEO of Mozilla, a free and open-source web browser, explained why they had been away from the spotlight for a while. They had been working on a browser to beat Google Chrome, which was only a few days away of being launched, and surpassed in terms of speed many of the actions that can be executed with Chrome.

Mozilla, catching up in silence

On a smaller scale, Lars Silberbauer, Global Director of Social Media and Video, also showed the example of “George” an under 100$ dollar campaign that successfully engaged (and still continues to engage) people all over the world. Shortly after being launched, pictures of “George” shot in the most remote locations started to appear online, with people eagerly responding to the challenge to make “him” travel all over the world.

George having a haircut somewhere in the world

There was also the debate between the owner of 99 designs — a platform for requesting visual brand elements such as a logo to a community of designers that compete to present the best idea — with the CEO of Saffron — a brand consultancy that works with big players — over the power of the masses in creating (affordable) creative content entitled “ The Masses Can replace our Creative Agencies”.

While in the end, both seemed to meet somewhere in the middle and agree there was space for all, it is clear the strength of platforms that leverage the power of masses — Saffron even launched the “minimum viable brand” concept, a cheaper offering to be able to compete with players like 99 designs.

Well, at least there is space for the two of us on stage

Digital nomads and freelancers are an increasingly common phenomenon. Making use of technology, people are more and more less dependent on where they are specifically located, leveraging platforms such as Upwork to find remote work and platforms such as Slack, to collaborate with people on the other side of the world. Having experience in remote teams myself, I can say there are many things that can be done now, without having to be in the same location.

Huge crowd gathering to hear Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel talking about freelancing as the fourth industrial revolution (and 7 things you need to know about that)

But not only work is being transformed by technology, play and entertainment are also. In one of the talks I heard about how people can now explore the magical world of “Gnomes and Goblins” created by Jon Favreau (director of The Jungle Book, Chef, Iron Man) with a VR headset, and about the emotional impacts of VR in people, which have shown feelings of “presence” — i.e. to some extent believing and reacting as if they were in the place where the game or movie shown happens.

What about having a work meeting in the Gnomes and Goblins tree house?

It is impressive how many high profile people are opting to take the time to present their achievements and shortcomings in conferences such as this and meet eye-to-eye to share their knowledge.

Take the case of Werner Vogels. After giving a talk on center stage to thousands of people, he rushed to a smaller roundtable with about 30 people, in which he replied to individual questions posed by participants.

I got to ask if Amazon was considering any special features in Alexa for kids (check 11"20 of the video below), as I have relative, my 3 year-old cousin that often asks about Alexa, even wanting to kiss her goodnight. This was being partially addressed by the voice profiles feature but he couldn’ elaborate on more specific features being developed as he was not the head of product for Alexa. Many more questions were answered.

Snippet of the roundtable conversation

Just like in conferences, high profile people are taking the time to narrate their achievements and shortcomings by themselves.

Although I haven’t been reading many political books, I am currently reading (well, listening, on Audiobooks) “What happened?” by Hillary Clinton, narrated by herself, where she explains the potential factors behind her defeat.

At the Web Summit there was space for politics too with a panel with two of the leading people in the the Trump campaign, explaining how Mr. Trump used its “unique” way of communicating “to take all the air in the room from other candidates” and grab the attention of voters, contributing for his victory.

The head of social media, explained that Mr. Trump was his own communications director, and the person sending out the tweets. If this is the case, Trump is somehow a (liked or disliked) reference practitioner of the content creation and promotion business, and tool used by marketeers was intensely used for political action.

This helps us see and understand the pervasive influence of technologies which touches all areas of life.

I grew up in Lisbon. This year (compared to last year) I heard about more people coming to Lisbon for this event: alumni from the same school I have attended abroad, ex-colleagues and former bosses, making it clear, that if this was to continue, this could become a annual meeting point for people interested in the same topics.

The spill-over effects of the conference were also more visible, as schools and other organizations had time to prepare the dozen of side events before and during the conference and the experience from seeing it happen here before.

In the previous week, I had attended a Women in Tech breakfast at one of the leading tech schools in Portugal, during the event, I attended a Geek Girls meetup — a side event — where I got to know women coming from London, Cape Town, or the Northeast of Brazil, recently settled in Lisbon, creating great hope not only for the gender diversity in tech but also cultural diversity in my home country.

The Women in Tech lounge was always busy, and the respective facebook group as well, and although I hadn’t planned to attend to the specific talk on sexism on Silicon Valley, I was glad I did, as the panel conveyed great hope for the increased awareness that society is gaining on this topic.

I was also glad to benefit from the hacks I had learned from the past Web Summit, this year I have decided to choose my talks in advance, which has proved to be very advantageous in making it more enjoyable experience (although for the last day they changed the scheduling for some of the talks and I had to improvise).

I have also decided to pack my own snacks instead of waiting 30 minutes in line for food, and potentially missing some talk I wanted to listen to and recharged my subway card in advance in order to not wait in the queue to recharge it (although one day I was proudly taking photos of the queue I was gladly going to skip only to realize that the 3 trips I had pre-charged were already gone, and yes, I would have to be in the queue as well).

Another thing I greatly enjoyed was sitting on the floor, well not sitting on the floor per se, but the casual vibe of the event, in which people were more eager to learn than having a chair to sit on. Guess this is also a trait of the tech culture.

No need for chairs

So it was totally fine that I didn’t make it to the centre stage for the final talk. I got to have one last look around, and savour the last moments at my own pace.

I still got watch Al Gore from the giant screen on the area outside the main stage, telling people they were on the verge of a sustainability revolution.

I thought about the many revolutions that had been announced here, and wished me and all the other fellow travelers good luck, until we meet hopefully, next year, as the President said, at the same time and the same place.

Curiosity did not kill the cat | Excited about product, culture, tech and creativity