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Reflections on Webstock 2017: Humane Tech

I attended my first Webstock conference this year and was blown away. I was not aware that it usually has a political element to it but apparently this year was a step up. 

Interspersed with traditionally technical and interest-driven talks were honest people getting up and saying what they felt about issues that affect everyone, Webstock 2017 centered around remembering that we are all still humans and how it’s all too easy to let shiny new tech get in the way of our humanity.

Most of the speakers were American so it is not surprising that they would mention the various actions of the newly elected President Trump, especially at a conference known for having a political bent. However, there were two in particular whose messages really resonated with me.

The first of these two speakers is Lisa Welchman. She was the first to push their political statements past a joke or a glancing mention, admitting that she could not do her talk about artificial intelligence and staying human because of what was going on in her home country.

Lisa has a strong message of action in the face of despair and encouraging us to focus on the things we can do rather than being paralysed by the things we cannot. Alongside that though was both an explicit and implicit message of humility and respect. I did not feel like she was ranting about a political agenda or telling us to do anything in particular other than care more, try more and use our positions as well-educated people in one the most influential sectors of our business communities.

I think her whole message was poetically summed up in how she started her talk by saying, “Before I forget to say it later, I love you all and I care about you,” to a room of complete strangers on the other side of the world expecting a talk about artificial intelligence.

Reflections on Webstock 2017: Humane Tech

The other speaker that resonated with me was Anil Dash with his talk Toward Humane Tech. Anil spoke poignantly and with much more clarity than I have heard from anyone else about exactly what is going with the communities and markets that dominate our online world. The highlight for me was his insights into the evolution of what we have thought of as traditional markets where we had buyers and sellers and consumers had price and choice into what we have now with services like Facebook, Google and Uber.

He did not just speak of doom and gloom but of ideas and solutions. One of the most interesting is on the topic of a professional body for the tech industry much like lawyers, doctors or engineers. The tech community and profession has exploded so fast and have such influence that the normal process of self-governance hasn’t had time to mature and perhaps it’s time for us to step up and look at what we are creating. Instead of just focusing on the next app or the next billion-dollar unicorn, we need to think about the social, economic and political outcomes of the online communities we are a part of and creating.

Even before I went to Webstock I was having these sorts of thoughts coupled with a sudden urgent need to actually do something, instead of just feeling like something needs to change. Whether it be getting involved in local government initiatives that are already going on or even doing something as small as talking to my friends and family and trying to get them to understand what is happening. As Lisa Walchman said in her talk, “We are the reason that it will get better”.


This post was first published on Seth’s blog www.sethreid.co.nz.

Posted by: Seth Reid, Developer, Modern Applications | 01 March 2017

Tags: Webstock

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