Technology to the rescue? #HybridWorldAdl

In 1759 the English essayist Samuel Johnson had some wise words about techno-hype.  He said

“When the philosophers of the last age were first congregated into the Royal Society, great expectations were raised of the sudden progress of useful arts; the time was supposed to be near, when engines should turn by a perpetual motion, and health be secured by the universal medicine…..”  

Johnson, like many sceptics of technology, struggled to keep his schadenfreude under control-

“… improvement is naturally slow. The society met and parted without any visible diminution of the miseries of life. The gout and stone were still painful, the ground that was not ploughed brought no harvest, and neither oranges nor grapes would grow upon the hawthorn.” (see video here)

Johnson would have in equal parts bamboozled and enthralled by a two-day conference Hybrid World Adelaide where new promises of technological solution for economic, environmental and social problems were propounded, alongside quite but powerful words of caution.

Hype-ridden or hybrid world?
Adelaide has (outside of “Mad March”) a sleepy image – “the streets are so wide, everybody’s inside, sitting in the same chairs they were sitting in last year” – which the state and city government are understandably keen to challenge.  They provided significant support, arguing that it is an“opportunity to extend South Australia’s reputation as a key tech destination for international visitors and businesses alike.”  This argument – that cities are competing to attract footloose global capital, is known in academia as ‘the spatial fix’  (first propounded by Marxist geographer David Harvey.  But broadband, stable tax regimes and an educated workforce is not on its own enough. In the words of one presenter, Anton van den Hengel   “ a lot of places [smart people] are asked to work by their companies suck. Adelaide doesn’t suck.”

There was an impressive range (and gender balance) among the speakers. The conference proper began with an overview of ‘five technologies that will shape your future’ from the conference’s creative director, Robert Tercek  (author of ‘Vaporised’ ). Over the course of the two days the various presenters spoke to each other’s work, raising questions elided by others, and occasionally fruitfully disagreeing.  Topics included empathic computing, machine learning (not to be conflated with artificial intelligence), space archaeology and, inevitably, smart cities.

There were a series of intriguing factoids thrown out.

  • In four years the number of Australian space start-ups has gone from one to…  eighty.
  • The price of monitoring a cow (handy for proving provenance) has tumbled from a thousand dollars to a few cents
  • Be careful with v-signs on social media – photo resolution is getting so high that your fingerprints could be scanned and used to open your devices
  • The medical advances around software and diagnostics mean photos of your retina taken with an adapted mobile phone will be able to spot heart disease and diabetes, while Chest CT scans can give a good indication if you’ll be alive in five years

The two most compelling presentations (and there was stiff competition) came on the first day.  An anthropologist- Professor Genevieve Bell had even hardened mining engineers sitting up and take notice.  Having pointed out that many of the new technologies relied upon enormous electricity consumption, and that therefore there might be times when AI was not the sustainable option even if it promised’ efficiency savings’, she argued that underlying the enthusiasm for information technologies were differing sets of assumptions and cultural goals. In the west, companies like Google and Facebook are hoovering up information ultimately to sell you things, while in China the focus is more on the creation or maintenance of ‘social harmony’.  Having interrogated the origins of the term Artificial Intelligence, Bell ended with a riff on Arthur C Clarke’s line that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic.  Instead, Bell said, our technologies should be about making magic.

Soon after, her suggestion was met.  When Marita Cheng , a young tech entrepreneur, founder of Robogals /and much else, demonstrated a mobile phone app   that announced what it was ‘seeing’ at eight objects a second, you could hear jaws hitting the floor.  Cheng followed this up with demonstrations of ‘telepresence’ robots,  which, among other things, would enable sick children to still ‘attend’ school.

The conference itself, bigger and better than last year’s effort  was itself a kind of hybrid – not ‘critical’ enough to be academic and  too broad-ranging to be a trade show (you don’t often get anthropologists and archaeologists on the stage).  But it’s this sense of daring, and of ‘ecosystem building’ – of creating the conditions for lateral thinking and serendipity, that the organisers constantly invoked.

As such, it wasn’t a space for interrogating the darkside of tech.  The dominant way of thinking about this was that ‘bias’ (a deviation from the ‘reasonable’ Gene Rodenberry-esque future) might happen, but active malice was ignored,  This was also a feature of the recent Adelaide Festival of Ideas: these events recruit their speakers from universities and start-ups, and  both tend to be relatively uncritical about technology. There are honourable exceptions.

Venture capitalists don’t give money to people who think tech will make the world worse (or poorer) Ask questions that are too awkward too awkwardly and you won’t be invited… A speaker warning of the panspectron,  of the power of autonomous weapons, might have darkened the mood a bit too much…

The gigabit economy?

Adelaide’s mass manufacturing base (never strong) is in poor shape.  Will the unfolding effort  to wire up the city centre for superfast connectivity provide an alternative economic base? Who gets left behind in this economy?  How do people retrain for a very different future? Might the ‘lucky country’ end up – as someone once warned – a banana republic?

There’s a lot to play for.  It will be interesting to see if the Liberal State government – represented at the conference by the newly-minted minister David Ridgway – can get past the fact that this sort of ‘attract the techies’ work was associated with the Weatherill government, and reach not just for current Liberal prime minister’s enthusiasm for ‘innovation and agility’,  but hark back to the state-building vision of a legendary (Liberal) premier- Thomas Playford.

Time will tell. Samuel Johnson might yet be proved right.

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