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Web woes… December 1, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

CMK linked to this last week, a piece by Sam Kriss in the Atlantic on that odd and unlovable phenomenon, the Web Summit, now in voluntary exile in Lisbon. Guarded, no less, by police with automatic weapons as noted in this piece by the Atlantic. Ignore the first paragraph which is a bit overly decorative in its use of language and there’s some great stuff, as CMK notes, in it, not least this:

Across dozens of stages, various electrified prophets announce the coming of a new world. One is showing, through a chart of human population, that all of history prior to the Industrial Revolution, its wars and empires and art and thought, is entirely irrelevant; humanity learned its purpose in the 19th century, which is to innovate; more is always better.

I loathe that attitude. It consigns hugely complex human histories and prehistory to the scrap heap where only the novel is valued. Culture, philosophy, are as nothing. It also, and tellingly, ignores the sheer weight of human misery then – and as importantly and certainly more immediately now, that characterised life as humans on this planet in the past. And of course it is ahistorical nonsense. Human history has had many cul-de-sacs, but we are where we are, building upon that history for better or for worse.

But the author asks a pertinent question which demonstrates that the view described above is in its own way irrelevant.

For instance, what do any of the companies exhibiting at Web Summit actually do? Much of the conference space is given over to these start-up exhibitors; each of them gets a meter of wall and a plug socket for their laptop, along with a big sign in which they announce their ambitions in terms that make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Having been to a sort of cousin of the Web Summit, trade fairs in various tech and electric industries – throughout the 90s and early 2000s I’ve more than a nodding acquaintance with that too. And this is spot on in relation to the absurd rhetoric around these phenomena:

It’s a strange kind of language, all modifiers bleached lifeless by cliché, employing the most grandiose terms (‘discover,’ ‘transformational,’ ‘revolution’) to describe what tends to be a new way of doing paperwork, spinning precariously on the edge of meaninglessness, but it’s still language.

And there’s another side too away from the hollow boosterism:

Among the companies that have a clearly comprehensible purpose, many are downright sinister. Something called InvoiceCapture “allows companies to collect debt efficiently without any human intervention needed,” conjuring the horrifying image of a robotic debt collector without conscience or emotion, a fully-automated social sadism running rampant over the world, beyond law, beyond responsibility, beyond hope. But possibly the worst of all was a firm called Tap My Back—Build Stronger Teams. “Boost workplace motivation with a simple employee-recognition software,” it announces. “It’s like saying ‘thank you’ but with badges and on a public feed.” Finally, something to relieve executives of the burden of having to personally thank their workers; finally, a way to discipline your workforce through a quantifiable and patronizing system of shame and reward; finally, the kindergarten gold-star method has been digitized and is ready to conquer the world.

Where does this leave us all, this absurd reification of the novel, of the empty, of a future where humans are secondary, if not indeed tertiary to requirements? How does any of this address increasing mechanisation of processes and the sidelining of labour – bar adding to that? What is it actually about? The author argues that with a tech bubble approaching and despite the heroic language of entrepreneurial endeavour much of this is froth, companies hoping to be bought out by others. But beneath that remarkably cynical aspect of it, what does it profit us?

Perhaps no surprise then that amongst the ‘special’ guests was…Bono.


1. lamentreat - December 2, 2016

There’s an American guy called Dan Lyons who wrote a book (“Disrupted”) about his time working for one of these gruesome start-ups, based in Boston I think. He’s a former business journalist whose media-friendly schtick – you can see it on youtube etc. – can be a bit hard to take. But buried beneath all the anecdotes is some very interesting analysis on exactly how the money works in these start-ups, the hierarchy of different tranches of capital, who gets paid off when, etc.

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