Web Summit 2016: Silicon Valley is not a place in America.
It is in Europe, it is in Asia, Africa, Australia, it is in California and it was highly concentrated in Lisbon this week during the explosive digital movement rally, Web Summit. Almost 55,000 people from more than 160 countries that in their hectic activities came together voting for progress through openness, curiosity and human ambition through the application of digital technologies.
It was just as pronounced as the horror at the outcome of the US presidential election. The total adherence to a post-industrial era of high growth, high opportunity. A deep notion that everyone everwhere now has a chance of ”making it”, regardless of lack of network, influential friends, money and whatever else seems to be inforcing power structures of the industrial past. All you have to have is skill and perseverance. And internet connectivity - but that part seems to be taken care of. This was the gettogether of the unafraid, the unabashed and undivided. Here, almost to the point of nausea, all were touting diversity, opportunity, purpose and a set of new world terms that are human centric.
But Web Summit is over. Lisbon is sweeping the last hopeful pitch material off its streets and returning to a sombre state of youth unemployment and stagnant industry. Silicon Valley is headed for the skies on low cost airlines to every imaginable destination, carrying a reinforced and invigorated sense of belonging, not to a place but to a frame of mind. A resistance to fail, actually, to let failure do anything but teach, and have an unquenchable belief in dreams, ambitions and product-market fit.
The medium of the Silicon Valley/ Digital philosophy is, still, technology. We are teaching machines how to teach themselves, how to better understand humans and interact meaningfully. Deep learning. The fascination with big data has been replaced by an omnipresent preoccupation with Artificial Intelligence – and one could argue that we need it as natural intelligence seems to be in increasingly short demand. Our robots, websites and apps can now tell our emotions, they can predict our choices and act as auras or demi-gods that arrange circumstance to our whims and wantings.
Technology and the rapid, agile ways of exploiting its wake of opportunity is now also providing frameworks for larger, set organisations to operate more organically, creating new cultures, new teams that work in direct but blessed opposition to the existing organisations creating the revenue streams of the future. Attracting talent. By promising freedom of expression, a learning environment and a grander global-change-agenda purpose.
But that is also where the music stops. What a self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing triple bottomline bliss is for the digitally proviliged, becomes just as self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing for the bereft that can rage on in false-news filled filter bubbles and avoid expose to more natural forms of intelligence, argumentation, reasoning, cause-and-effect analysis. The digital elite, meaning merely the digitally literate, at Web Summit were also in agreeance that a Universal Basic Income for all citizens were the only answer to technology’s rapid insourcing that is making human labor redundant. A generally estimated third of all existing jobs will become extinct in just a few years as digital technology takes over in finance, marketing, sales, legal and across every single industry.
That was perhaps the real news at Web Summit, perhaps the clearest viewpoint to a new, digital, world order. That the casualties are starting to show. And with visible drawbacks, the debate on how to tackle them is emerging. Yes, we will get more AI and everything is data driven and available in Virtual Reality formats, realtime and cheap. That is a no brainer. The big question is how to reinvent the purpose of humans that have acted as machines for centuries, perhaps since farming was invented. Now, the machines are reclaiming their functions and we have to look at what essentially makes us us, human, to fully benefit from the coming of the robots. And, interestingly, that question is more and more on the mind of entrepreneurs and technologists, inhabitants of the no-place Silicon Valley that has pervaded all industries, all aspects of our lives. Now we are coming to understand machines enough to make them understand us – the big question for us to answer remains: who are we and what is our place, our contribution? Answering this will preoccupy us for the next centuries to come, as individuals, as countries, organisations, companies. As Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk put it, we ”are asking the wrong question when asking how to avoid computers taking over our jobs. Instead, we should ask how computers can help us create new jobs”. In case we wonder what the essentially ”human” component really is, on which we must build the new jobs, perhaps we will soon be able to ask our machines that question.