Last Friday Sarah and I went along to the second of the Southbank Centre’s “think ins” about the upcoming Web We Want festival. The festival is a collaboration with Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation and looks to explore some of the issues and challenges facing the web as it enters its third decade. The festival will take part over three discrete weekends this month, in September and in March 2015.
I reported from the first event back in the summer. That one was a pretty large affair, taking over the whole of the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer and featuring an extended Q&A with Berners-Lee himself. This second event was slightly more modest. Again hosted by the Centre’s creative director Jude Kelly, it brought together about 70 people broadly from the digital world – designers, developers, entrepreneurs, adacemics, policy makers and digital artists – to brainstorm what kind of topics the festival should cover.
Now of course, when 70 people brainstorm any topic there’s going to be some overlap in the themes that emerge. Nonetheless, the ideas that were fed back at the end of the afternoon certainly covered a lot of diverse ground. Some of the issues raised that caught my imagination included:
Entrepreneurship The advent of the web has of course seen the birth and rise of some behemoth companies. But it’s been good for entrepreneurship at every level right down to “kitchen table” businesses. What barriers remain to entrpreneurs and start ups? And how can we address these?
Disruption But here’s the flip side of flourishing entrepreneurship. It’s easy to knock incumbent businesses who’ve been adversely affected by the web. But in truth it’s been a devastating decade industry after industry, and I would certainly argue that much vaunted new business models are hardly filling the gap left by the collapse of the old ones. The various forms of “free” are great for the VC-backed and ad spend-soaked tech megacorps, but how can both creative practice and meaningful content industry business be sustained in a world where everything’s given away?
Digital inclusivity This is not only a theme for the festival to explore but one for it to be aware of in how it’s put together, too. Several people pointed out that even in the UK we have a real digital divide, with as much as 10% of the population having no access to the web. Overseas (and the festival seeks to be international) the case is often considerably worse. Furthermore, in many regions access is primarily on mobile devices – something that’s hugely important for the festival to bear in mind.
Democracy and Free Speech Quite a week for this, what with beheading videos and stolen naked sleb snapshots. In some senses, there’s nothing necessarily new here. All democracies grapple the frictions that arise between the right to free speech, the right to privacy, the right to be informed, the right to safety. But there’s little doubt that the web has execerbated these tensions. As I pointed out onstage the web has gone in a few short years from being a utopia for southern Californian hippy libertarians to a playgound for violent misogynists, terrorists, chold pornoagraphers, cannibals… you get the picture. Yes, we need to preserve freedom online as far as possible, but let’s grow up: we need to police it, too. But in such an international environment, who does that policing? And how?
Neurobiological impact There was quite a discussion along the whole “is Google making us stupid” line. Coming out of the back of Carr’s The Shallows and Soojung-Kim Pang’s The Distraction Addiction I had a lot of sympathy for some of the concerns raised. Interestingly, I think that as little as two or three years ago the conversation wouldn’t have gone that far. But I think there’s a general creeping suspicion that something is happening to our brains that’s quite fundamental. I liked the suggestion of one group about using real time MRI in some kind of live demos – there’s definitely something to develop there.
Sex One participant pointed out that the festival definitely needs to cover sex. From porn to Tinder, the web has had a profound impact on sexuality and relationships. There needs to be a frank, open discussion about all facets of this somewhat landmine-filled area. As someone put it: “How do I meaningfully prepare my daughter for what’s out there?”
Identity & privacy And finally, this huge topic, that emerged in several guises over the course of the afternoon. It’s something of a cliché of the modern web that we are the product. For good reason: it’s effetively true. As the excellent Atlantic article “The Internet’s Original Sin” pointed out, there are huge consequences to the free model I touched on earlier, although it’s an approach taken up with great enthusiasm by the content industries. Not the least of these consequences is that advertising remains the only viable business model – but that advertising is predicated on the gathering of previously inconceivable amounts of data about our lives. How happy are we with this data being in the hands of private corporations? Do we trust them with it? Is the trade-off for free content, platforms and services worth it?
It was stimulating afternoon, then, and it will be interesting to see how much of this thinking ends of in the festival as it comes together.