WIRED25: A Dichotomy of Technology and Humanity

One of the great things about being the Digital Experience Agency for WIRED is that a few lucky folks (myself included) were able to attend the WIRED25 Festival. The festival is a celebration of the last 25 years of technology and innovation that has radically transformed business and culture, along with a look forward to what lies ahead in the next 25 years.

The speaker list is a “who’s who” of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, thinkers and writers, so I was really excited to hear what they were up to, what they were focused on, and what they were most excited about.

Most of the discussions on day one of the festival felt pretty familiar. The overriding theme seemed to be ‘hacking the future.’ Ideas around discovering unmet needs in the market, ideating quickly to come up with unique ways to meet those needs, and then scaling as fast as possible.

Famed Nike designer, Tinker Hatfield, spoke about his focus on using technology to fit form for purpose, which fell inline with the trend toward uber personalization. He talked about how their work on the self-tying shoe was leading them down a path that might help to save the feet of athletes, who generally find their feet destroyed after years of wearing extremely tight fitting footwear that restricts blood flow. They are developing shoes that can sense when you are actively playing and tighten up or, when on the sidelines, automatically loosen up to help promote better circulation and blood flow. Before finishing his talk, he unveiled the new unnamed Jordan Running shoe, which he calls the GOAT.

Joi Ito and Reid Hoffman continued down a similar path, talking about the need to move fast to be successful in business. At Greylock Partners, Reid Hoffman now tells the companies they invest in that they need to double their size after three months, then six months, then a year –he even wrote a book about how to do this called, Blitzscaling. One of the key tenets of the book is to prioritize speed over efficiency in the environment of uncertainty. Some of the counterintuitive rules like, “Let Fires Burn” or “Tolerate Bad Management” seem like a path to ruin, but Hoffman argues that focusing on these things in the early stages can take your your focus off growth and product/service development —  the things that ultimately matter the most. To his credit, he did also note that any startup attempting to do this needs to ensure first that they have the right culture in place, including prioritizing diversity of demographics and thought.

Toward the end of the first day, Joi commented that, with technology, you do need to be wary of the fact that it accelerates you in the direction you are already going. Maybe it was just because I wrote Joi’s last comment down, but it seemed to be a turning point in the discussions that followed the next day.

If Silicon Valley is known for anything, the utopian view that technology will solve all of our problems and make our lives better is certainly high up on that list. On day two of the festival, however, that wasn’t the case. It was as if many in Silicon Valley had woken up, looked around and said, “woah, we need to put some controls on this stuff because shit’s gotten way outta hand!”

The general consensus from speakers like Jaron Lanier, Glen Weyl and Anand Giridharadas seemed to be that we’ve been rushing headlong into the future, riding a wave of exponential change without considering what the impact of all this change will be on society.

Author Anand Giridharadas discussed how wealth continues to be unevenly divided with 82% of all new wealth created going to the top 1% of the wealthiest people. And, if that isn’t bad enough, we now also seem to have given in to the idea that these billionaires will save the world. Elon Musk will save transportation, Mark Zuckerberg will save community, Jeff Bezos will save publishing, etc. What we forget is that these same billionaires are technologists, focused on monetizing their organizations first and foremost, and lack deep understanding of how cultures work. Do we really want to live in a world with one store (Amazon), one community (Facebook) and one place to find information (Google)?

Things continued in this direction with Jaron Lanier, who advocates that social media has polarized our society and destroyed democratic debate. These “manipulation engines,” as he defines them, are designed for profit and to the benefit of advertisers, opposed to users of the platforms. Similar to Anand’s point, social media are tools that lack social and cultural understanding. They are a bunch of algorithms that maximize revenue without a clear understanding of the impact. For example, we look at these tools as a great way to spread positive cultural movements like #metoo or #blacklivesmatter. But, these algorithms also feed a negative cycle that can give rise to some of the worst neo-nazi or racist behavior we’ve seen in generations.

Another key theme that emerged was the notion that many of these networks are successful because of their participants, who should be compensated for their contribution. Glen Weyl, who advocated for radical change in our social and economic markets, talked about the need for data unions. Organizations that can advocate for a collective group of people to ensure they are compensated for their contributions and help people to manage that data and the agreements they have in place. He also spoke of the need for collective organization and how individually we are weak, but only through organization and numbers can we effect change.

While day 1 and 2 seemed to have contrasting themes, there is a thread that binds them, and that is this last point about people coming together to bring about change. 25 years ago, when WIRED was founded, young tech savvy entrepreneurs came together and used technology to fight large corporations and bring about a more innovative world that they felt would benefit its inhabitants.

The benefits we’ve seen, and there are many, have also brought about some unintended consequences. So perhaps the next 25 years should focus on people coming together to hack society and social change for the better. In short, over the next 25 years, we need to give our technology a liberal arts degree too.