Food For Thought: Highlights From Thinking Digital 2019

Thinking Digital is a two-day conference of thought-provoking talks and workshops designed to inspire and enlighten.

“A celebration of innovation and innovators!”

Over 500 people–creators and corporates alike–came together at the Sage Gateshead, in the north east of England, to indulge in technology, innovation, and ideas of the future.

On the first day, May 15th, delegates attended workshops of their choice, with the opportunity to hear from experts, tackling: Unconscious Bias, Diversity, Tech and Business, Immersive Tech in Arts and Culture, Explainable AI, Emotional Intelligence in a Digital World, and Podcasting.

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The power of the smart fridge

Kicking off the second day of the event, Jamie Bartlett reflected on and speculated about smart devices and elections. Cambridge Analytica was never really about the huge misuse of data, he suggests. The real story is how elections are changing.

Gone are the days of canvassing. Instead, candidates will appear on the screen on your smart fridge. They’ll feed you narratives optimized for your state of hunger, because we’re more susceptible when emotions are heightened. (Hanger is real, hello!)

More questions were raised. When everything is hyper-targeted, how can politicians be transparent in campaigns? There will be a different election campaign in every home, capitalizing of data gathered by internet-enabled devices.

The same could be said for marketing campaigns. And there’s no escaping it. After all, much like the iPod classic and vinyl players, having a ‘normal’ fridge will soon be the more expensive option.

Jamie Bartlett talks Facebook and Cambridge Analytica on BBC This Week

Merging online and offline worlds

Others were not so concerned about the data-orientated path we are on, but instead expressed the need to continuously adapt and grow. Tech can help–not hinder–us, but we must make conscious decisions to ensure it.

Should we collectivize to envision a hybrid model of the life we currently have? A rethink of government structure and the global economy is needed, Dave Erasmus claimed.

Erasmus, after finding success in Silicon Valley, craved something different. He uprooted and went to the rainforest to find himself, as it were. Upon returning a changed man, he struck a deal with a landowner in the South of England who allowed him to live in a cabin, deep into a forest, on the man’s property.

The cabin, bought cheaply online, was his home. Spending a year out there–aside from the ‘cheeky pint at the local pub’–Erasmus lived primitively and learned to utilize his surroundings.

Going from one extreme to the next, Erasmus said that finding the right balance between on and off the grid is critical going forward.

We must not only catch up with technology but reflect and rethink how we interact with it. Digital is good for breadth; analog is good for depth. Is there a way the two can work together, better than they do today?

Thinking Digital speaker Dave Erasmus went off grid
Photographer: thomas shellberg | Dave Erasmus went off the grid after success in Silicon Valley

XR helps to bridge the gap

It’s somewhat peculiar that tech is so ingrained in day-to-day lives but yet online and offline behavior is so starkly contrasting. After all, we all do act differently online.

But extended reality (XR), or sometimes just ‘anything reality’, could be pivotal in bridging the gap between on and offline life.

Although VR’s boom still hasn’t quite arrived, it is slowly making its way into more and more homes as headsets become more affordable. In the B2B space, VR is used extensively in training which makes it critical the development of real-world skillsets.

But VR may not be the driver we need. As augmented reality (AR)–where computer-generated images are placed upon a real-world environment–becomes more popular, the divide between reality and digital will blur further. This is expected to encourage a more hybrid lifestyle, and perhaps less extreme interactions with online personas.

Thinking Digital and AR
Photographer: David Grandmougin | Pokemon Go one of the most common applications of AR

How Facebook VR is taking action

Michelle Cortese, a VR designer at Facebook, revealed – in line with Facebook’s wider ethos – how the Oculus team are breaking down the barriers between virtual and reality through extensively customizable settings. Driven by women’s movements, this forces players to respect each other's preferences based on what interactions they would allow in person.

Cortese explained that, if you set your ‘personal space’ to a certain distance and player breaches this, getting too close without your approval, they will simply disappear.

This is a big step forward in reinforcing boundaries in video games, an industry which has otherwise struggled to protect vulnerable players with issues of harassment, sexualization and oppression.

Photographer: stephan sorkin | The Facebook Oculus team are exploring ways to reinforce boundaries

But tech should be about exploration

While many talks echoed themes of dystopian realities or idealistic opportunity, on a completely different end of the spectrum was robot innovator Maria Yablonina. Although presented as a roboticist, we soon learned that Yablonina is, in fact, an architect.

She’s part of a team at the Institute for Computational Design and Construction focussed on exploring computer-aided manufacturing processes in architecture.

Creativity and inquisitiveness were evident as she told us about her vertical, wall-climbing robots, designed to help build and be part of art exhibitions, aimed at rethinking architecture.

Yablonina could make a lot of money selling the robots as window cleaners, someone once told her. But that’s not why they were made. They were made for art; for creativity.

Whilst almost everything today is commodified, Yablonina’s exclusivity to creativity, innovation, and making was a gentle reminder to keep pushing boundaries and challenging ourselves.

Maria Yablonina and her wall-walking robots

What did you take from the conference? Have any thoughts on topics covered? Let us know what you think.

And from the organizer of Thinking Digital himself…

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