Creative non-fiction by Tom C. B. Williams.
I am standing in the middle of an enormous hangar, defending myself with a semi-automatic rifle from creatures that leap at me from the darkness. As far as I can tell I’m aboard some sort of futuristic vessel, currently under attack from aliens. A warning light on the ceiling flashes red; uniformed figures run for their lives. Every time I have a moment to catch my breath, another alien pounces and slashes me across the back. My heads-up display throbs red with each hit, indicating that I’m losing vital lifeblood. I stagger, nearly losing my footing. My heartbeat is throbbing in my temples, clamped beneath the headset. The aliens catch me on the reload – three or four of them jumping from different directions – and then it’s all over mercifully quickly.
I lift up the headset and take a big gulp of air. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to my real surroundings. I’m standing on underlit floor, which is cordoned off by velvet rope. There’s a queue of men in suits standing in line looking equal parts amused and disinterested. This is Mobile World Congress – the largest technology conference in the world.
I return the VR headset to the attendant and let someone else try their luck against the aliens. Right now I need fresh air. My shirt is sticking to my back. I’ve only walked a few paces before I have to squat down at the edge of the walkway, dizzy and verging on throwing up. Crowds of suits move past in both direction, most of them head-down and thumbing at a phone.
Right now I’m deep inside one of the nine enormous conference halls that makes up Mobile World Congress. The annual event is a week-long, city-sized expo at which every major tech company in the world is present. They’re all here to demonstrate their newest products and their visions for the future. My job is to distil the conference content into bite-size ‘learnings’ which can subsequently be ‘actioned’ by a particular Silicon Valley client.
So far, virtual reality is clearly this year’s must-have toy. Several major phone manufacturers are giving away free headsets to anyone who purchases a new phone. In the expo’s halls, companies deploy a variety of interactive experiences to demonstrate their VR capabilities, including ski jumps, rollercoasters, submarines and spacewalks. The whole conference is crowded with businesspeople, but the VR booths in particular are swarming with folks eager to test the new kit.
As I walk around the expo after the alien attack, I find that I am still twitching at movements in my peripheral vision. My trigger finger is poised, ready to blow anything that moves out of this world.
At the side of the hall I find an exit out to one of the astroturfed Networking Gardens and go outside. It is cloudy overhead, giving everything muffled, static feeling. I buy a coffee from a stand, but in my post-VR disorientation I mistake a sachet of pepper for sugar, and I only realise this too late, by which point my espresso is already well-seasoned. I scoop out what I can using the sieve-like stirrer, and then I drink the coffee anyway. It catches in my throat and makes me sneeze, but at least it brings me back to my senses.
Monday, 2:10 pm | Fira España, Barcelona
Armed police guard the plaza outside MWC’s main entrance. There’s an enormous outdoor screen, the type you’d normally associate with a significant sporting event, which right now is beaming footage of Mark Zuckerberg, live inside the building, updating his personal profile via keynote address. Naturally, he’s talking about virtual reality, of which he’s a well-documented enthusiast – after all he did spend more than $2 billion of Facebook’s money acquiring the VR-headset manufacturer Oculus Rift. According to Zuckerberg, in the near-future, virtual reality will be the way we all communicate with each other. He describes his visions of sitting around a virtual campfire with friends from around the world, or sharing his baby’s first steps in 360-degree view. Rapt spectators crane their necks up at the massive screen, using conference flyers to shield their eyes from the Spanish sun. I turn my back on them, gather my nerves, and then throw myself into the tide of bodies flowing into the building.
MWC’s security checks are as intensive as any airport. On the other side, conference-goers are transported via a trio of escalators up to the Boardwalk – the floating walkway that forms the spine of the enormous conference centre, affording a top-down perspective into each of the hangar-like halls below. Even the smallest hall is the size of several football pitches. Its space consists of a complicated gridwork of walkways and corporate expo stands. From up here it’s like a bird’s eye view down onto some dystopian megalopolis. The suits flow like ants. I can see the queue for the alien attack VR experience – the line extends around several corners, so that from above it resembles a game of Snake on an old Nokia 3310.
Before arriving in Barcelona, I’d steeled myself to expect a very large conference indeed. But nothing could have prepared me for just how mind-bendingly vast the whole thing is now that I’m really here. Let me try and provide a sense of the scale: walking from one end of the conference to the other is like transferring across an international airport between terminals to the furthest possible gate. It takes more than half an hour, and that’s with the help of several travellators. This week there are more than 100,000 people are here inside the building. My Welcome Pack includes a map of the conference depicting the principal Halls, and there’s a whole cringeworthy nomenclature for the various zones, including App Planet, the Cloud Pavilion and the Theatre District. I’m finding that the whole thing is a nightmare to navigate, not solely for reasons of size.
MWC is big business: a visitor pass for the full event will set you (or your employer) back some $2,000. A bit of quick arithmetic shows that ticket revenues alone represent a ton of money – upwards of $200 million dollars. That’s before you factor in all the other conference income streams, including the exhibitor booths, VIP privileges, a whole mineralogy of sponsorship packages. Apparently this year the conference organisers can expect to take home something in the region of $45 million dollars in profit.
The Welcome Pack’s introductory blurb admits that last year’s event had a male-to-female ratio of fifty to one. “We’re hoping to improve on that this year,” state the organisers, who have accordingly set up a series of side-events aimed at addressing the gender unbalance. But locating the Women in Tech area on the map is not easy, hidden as it is in some far corner of the building’s complicated geography. It seems that the organisers’ strategy is one of inclusion via segregation, with the more progressive conversations taking place at a comfortable distance from the rest of the event.
As I travel the travellators, I notice a lot of people staring at my midriff. I look down to check whether my shirt is missing a button or my fly is undone. Then I realise they’re checking out who I am via my conference pass, which features my name and employer, and hangs from a Microsoft-branded lanyard at belly-button height. As people on the conveyor cross in opposite directions, it’s badge-check instead of eye contact as everyone scans those travelling in the opposite direction.
Down in Hall 8.0, most of the stands are demonstrating shiny new hardware, ranging from tablets and phones to VR headsets and WiFi-enabled toothbrushes. There are several stands where the enterprise is more conceptual, a promise rather than a product, and the only apparent offering, beyond a future vision, is some free ballpoint pens and a bowlful of mints.
Even the Barcelona Football team has a stand, and there’s a squad of girls in full team kit playing a strong formation in the walkways. They’re offering passers-by the chance to have their picture taken with one of the team’s star players.
“Are the players here?” I ask when I am stopped.
“Sort of,” says one of the girls.
I look over at the stand, where a suit having his picture taken, his arm hooked around the shoulders of an imaginary friend.
“It’s a hologram projection,” she explains. “You can choose any player.”
The suit beams with pride when the photo arrives on his device.
“You can post it to any of your social feeds.”
“But…why?” I ask, struggling to work out the point.
“It’s a partnership between Barcelona FC and the team who built the software. They’re looking for a potential buyer.”
“Which one do you work for?” I ask.
“Neither,” she says. “I’m an architecture student. This helps me pay for my studies.”
“So what do you think of this place?” I ask. “The conference I mean.”
She shakes her head and looks me in the eye.
“It’s inhumane,” she says.
Monday 6:25 pm | Hall 8.0, Theatre F, Room 2
I am at a Microsoft-sponsored cocktail party in the somewhat fractal location of a room within a theatre within a hall inside the conference, giving the whole thing a reductionist bent. I end up gravitating towards the table of drinks, where I end up chatting to a lanky kid called Ian from Seattle. Ian is in his mid-twenties, he’s wearing a brand new suit, and this is the first time he has ever left the USA.
“I got my first passport like a month ago,” he explains.
When I ask him how he’s enjoying his time here so far, he struggles to find a way to put it nicely.
“It’s really different,” he says.
“How do you mean?” I ask.
“Well for one thing it’s the European food. I just fucking hate it. I got here on Friday and spent the whole weekend puking my guts up. Then there’s the jet-lag that’s just floored me, which nobody warned me about. And don’t even get me started on your public transport, which is a fucking joke.”
Something in the way he refers to Europe as if it’s a single country tells me he’s already tarred the whole continent with the same brush. And whereas I’d usually meet this sort of stance with an impassioned counter-argument, including a hypothetical itinerary of all the amazing places he could visit, there’s something in his crushing pessimism which to me, right now, is vaguely comforting.
Leaving MWC at the end of the day is like something from Dante. Picture rush-hour London Underground on an epic scale, or every spectator at Wembley trying to squeeze out through a single turnstile. At the Metro there are signposts along the queue’s length – the kind you’d usually expect to see at a theme park calling out estimated wait times for the next ride. The line is currently well past the 45-minute mark, and the prospect of waiting even another moment in this underground passageway is more than I can take. And so even though it is five miles back to the city centre, I decide that I’m doing it on foot.
Right now I just need to be outside. I want to see an unconnected tree or an analogue sunset. As I walk back towards the city centre, I make an effort to unpack my thoughts from today’s sensory overload. Something about the prevalence of virtual reality systems is sitting with me uncomfortably. Is it really true that in a matter of years we’ll all be strapping our phones to our faces and plugging in to some alternative reality? Is reality itself not real enough? As VR systems get more and more sophisticated, it will become harder to distinguish between virtual and genuine experiences. What then? Given a choice, will people end up living non-stop in these perfect-yet-artificial worlds?
Monday 11:45 pm | Mobile After Party, Las Ramblas
I have an invitation to a networking party downtown. It’s got an open bar, and I could really use a drink, so why not? I end up chatting to a group of conference old-timers who’ve been attending MWC for more than twenty years. It feels good to have some normal human contact, so I listen to the guys reminisce about the good old days while they knock back complimentary margaritas and party on yachts.
“MWC has gotten too big,” says Big Dave (that’s how he introduces himself). “It’s not what it used to be.”
“It’s grotesque,” says John, shaking his head.
They sound like old hippies, nostalgic about how Glastonbury used to be back before the fence went up. The group of guys are also playing some sort of masochistic game between them for the duration of the conference. Apparently it’s something of a tradition. The number one rule is that “eating is cheating.”
“Every MWC takes four months off the end of your life,” explains Mike. “It’s like a week-long stag do, only every day you’ve got to get up for a job interview.”
I am the only person at the table without some form of wearable device, so I can’t join in when it comes to comparing today’s personal data, such as the exact number of steps they’ve each walked so far today, how few hours they slept last night, etc. So instead I order some tapas, fully aware that I’m breaking the rules of the game, but if I don’t have something to eat then I won’t get through tonight, let alone the rest of the week.
Somewhere along the way I get in the mood. Maybe it’s the party’s open bar, and the wide range of free Scotch. More likely it’s the fact that the music has grown so loud that conversation right now is blissfully impossible.
Tuesday 9:05 am | Fira Metro Station
I’m part of the bovine crowd sleepwalking from the Metro station towards the gaping maw of the Fira’s main entrance when out of the corner of my eye I spot the glorious redemptive beacon of the golden arches. Breakfast is needed: I was woken by the sound of bottles smashing into the recycling container below my window, before somebody else started throwing scaffolding poles onto the pavement. When I opened my eyes I saw the plastic band around my left wrist, and there was a brief moment when I thought I might be in hospital, or worse. Then last night’s party swam back into focus, and when I sat upright it was like taking a cosh to the temple. But all this fades away now that the Breakfast Menu is in sight.
A freestanding sign by the door tells me that even McDonald’s has been co-opted by MWC, and this week is playing host to the Blackberry Briefing Centre. It’s a sign of quickly fortunes can fade in this business that Blackberry’s presence at this year’s MWC amounts to borrowing a corner of a fast-food restaurant across the street from the conference proper. In previous years when Blackberry was flourishing, their conference stand would have been one of the largest.
Thankfully none of this impacts my ability to grab a coffee and a Sausage Egg McMuffin, and the effects on my hangover, and on my outlook in general, are instantaneous and magnificent. I can feel the whole mental gauze of my hangover lifting. It’s all going to be okay.
Tuesday 9:52 am| Fira España
On my way into the conference I pick up a copy of this morning’s Mobile World Daily, a glossy publication that brings you up to speed on everything that went down at MWC the previous day. It seems decidedly low-tech that the conference news bulletin has a physical format, given the plethora of digital opportunities being bandied around, but I’m not complaining that I can catch up without using a screen. Today’s headlines mostly cover product announcements issued overnight, with new phones from Samsung, Lenovo, Sony and a load of Chinese manufacturers I’ve never heard of. Samsung’s VR headset is front-page news, with a quote from Zuckerberg’s Monday speech. Other pages are full of similar new announcements. Each story cites the uniqueness of the new product offering, any yet it is the collective homogeneity that is the most striking feature.
As I walk the conference floor, it’s clear that I am not the only one nursing a hangover. I catch one suit asleep on the floor in a far corner of Hall 4, jacket covering his head to block out the migraine-inducing lighting. I have also identified a sub-species of suit prone to statements of individualism via e.g. a backwards Kangol hat or leopard-print trilby.
When I say there are stands in the expo, know that these are not just your typical conference booth, rather that some of MWC’s stands are mansion-sized, multi-tiered structures. The largest of these can cost half a million dollars for the week, and that’s just for the square-footage before any structure is in place.
A common feature across stands large and small is the phenomenon of women-used-as-bait. They wear tight, revealing clothing and tend to be positioned out front in the walkways to lure suits over to the stands. Companies seem to be competing over whose girls are wearing the skimpiest outfits. HTC have gone down the ‘angelic’ route, outfitting their girls in little white dresses and angel wings; ZTE, by contrast, have opted for a more militaristic look, equipping their army of beauties in camouflaged hotpants with holsters strapped to their thighs.
I’ve been hoping to get a sense of how well the Women in Mobile side-event is being received, but when I get there it’s by invitation only, so I can’t get in.
Incidentally, MWC hosts that rare phenomenon where the queue for the gents is consistently longer than that of the ladies. The only place I can remember having to wait long to piss was after a White Snake concert at the London Real Ale Festival.
Outside in one of the networking gardens I find a place where I can sit and check my emails. People around me are sleeping in deckchairs, someone making a hands-free phone call is gesticulating wildly as if arguing with the voices in his head. A nearby vendor is hawking bio-hacked food and drinks, including Jedi Mushroom Tea, which sounds potentially psychedelic, and if that’s the case then it’s the last thing my poor brain needs right now, so I politely decline.
Tuesday 2:32 pm | 4YFN
It turns out there’s a whole other part of the conference, two miles away, where the prophetically named Four Years From Now (4YFN) side-event is taking place. I decide to take the free shuttle over there to go and check it out. 4YFN is dedicated to start ups and entrepreneurs, and immediately upon walking through the door the space feels a whole lot more humane.
Within minutes I see the first offering that is genuinely cool. It’s called What3Words, and the underlying principle is very simple.
“We’ve divided earth’s surface into a grid of 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares,” explains Steven, who founded the company four years ago. “Each square has a unique three-word identifier, like dog.tree.hat, for example. This means that every place on earth can be pinpointed using just three words.”
This simple and powerful idea addresses the fact that 60% of the world’s population do not have a street address or postcode, prohibiting residents of these areas from opening a bank account or even receiving a letter to their door.
“If postal services and banks and companies like Amazon and Paypal all begin to recognise our three-word signifiers as legitimate addresses, then everybody on earth would instantly have a simple, memorable postal address. Right now we’re trying to get a critical mass of acceptance.”
Steven’s pitch is appealing and, in contrast to pretty much everything I’ve seen over at the main conference, it strikes me as a case of technology genuinely enhancing connections between people.
Deep inside the building, I take a seat at the Internet of Things pitching battle, where seven start-ups are vying for the attention of investors in the crowd. Each competitor has three minutes to present their product, before a jury of corporate VPs (from Google, Cisco, Intel, etc.) ask questions for a further two minutes. All four walls of the theatre are draped with red velvet curtains, giving the whole space a somewhat Lynchian atmosphere.
The start-ups’ ideas are all plausible and compelling. Visualead from Israel has come up with an image-based QR code, capable of turning any picture into a machine-readable website URL. Fueloyal has invented a smart fuel cap, designed to combat the apparent 8-figure annual dollar losses reported by haulage firms due to fuel theft from their own drivers. The pressure of the pitching battle is intense: one twenty-something CEO goes into catatonic meltdown when the video embedded within his Powerpoint fails to load. After several minutes of embarrassing technical delay, he perseveres without his visual aid, but under the bright lights his grey shirt betrays patches of sweat, his voice wavers, and watching him quietly fall apart becomes far more fascinating than his presentation itself.
The winning pitch comes from a company who make a credit-card sized device to fit inside parcels making them self-aware. Instead of tracking your delivery via a clunky website (so the pitch goes), you and your parcel enjoy a personal relationship with real-time data. The parcel doesn’t just tell you where it is, but also how it’s doing, what temperature it is, whether it’s been dropped or left outside. And here comes the kicker: the device has a tiny e-ink display, so that when you receive your parcel and take out the tracker, it recognises where it is, and the address of the nearest device return point pops up on the screen. All you do is drop it in a post box and it finds its way back home.
The jury get excited thinking of all the parallel use cases for the tech, like monitoring their children or an errant spouse. Meanwhile the guy sitting next to me (who, I’ve seen from his badge, represents Deutsche Post) is twitching with excitement at the parcel tracking device, and before the pitch is even over he’s got the metaphorical chequebook out and is ready to sign.
Wednesday 9:15 am | Fira España
Outside the main entrance there are protesters handing out flyers saying ‘Real men don’t buy women.” I stop and talk to Lena, who tells me about a Russian company kicked out of MWC a couple of years ago for employing prostitutes on their stand. It turned out that the Russians were organising off-site “business meetings” for key decision-makers. But the issue of prostitution surrounding MWC is not as simple to tackle as kicking out the most obvious perpetrator. A core part of how the main players still communicate with each other is through this language of objectification (c.f. the phones’ sexy curves and the women-as-bait).
Hall 6 is a superfluity of new devices, and I have not the space, time, nor inclination to make any sort of comparison. Let’s just say they are megapixelled out of this world and bloated with unnecessary functionality. Bottom line is that they’re still just phones.
Innovation City, at the far end of Hall 6, is where you can check out demos of the connected future that awaits us. Short-sightedly, and symptomatic of my depleting mental faculties, I decide to go and check it out.
I find myself standing in the house of the future – a so-called Smart Home. Every room is equipped with sensors and appliances, and all these gadgets are connected to an intelligent nerve centre. The house itself is sentient. It collects data from devices, learns patterns of behaviour from its inhabitants, and makes decisions accordingly. The fridge, for example, understands that the milk is running low so adds it to the online shopping list. Sensing how I am feeling, the living room’s wallpaper adjusts its tone to a more soothing hue.
Another of MWC’s main themes is emerging: the idea is that anything and everything can (and should) be connected. A ‘Thing’ can be a domestic appliance, or a car, or person with a heart monitor, or any object enhanced with an IP address and the ability to transfer data over a network. The first such connected appliance was a vending machine at Carnegie Melon University back in the early 1980s, which programmers hooked up to the Internet in order to save themselves a walk if it ran out of Coke. We’ve come a long way since then, and everywhere you look at this year’s MWC are connected objects and self-aware Things.
Later in the day, the smart house is still playing on my mind. I suppose it’s got something to do with imagining sharing my personal living space with artificial intelligence on such an extensive scale. It’s not only the superfluity of devices that bothers me; I’m troubled too by all that personal information – the minutiae of my daily existence – being collected by some third-party platform in the cloud. Each individual data point might appear innocent enough (how I take my coffee, when I last ate, etc.) but the collective whole forms a detailed picture of who I am and how I live my life. There’s no getting around the fact that whoever runs my smart home’s network would know an awful lot about me, and these days the boundary between one’s personal identity and one’s aggregated data seems to me to be increasingly hard to identify.
Wednesday 11:45 pm | Qualcomm party
I get soaked in a rainstorm running from the Metro, and arrive at the Qualcomm party with my hair plastered across my forehead and glasses fogged with condensation. My dripping jacket puddles water around my feet.
The party is taking place behind the neoclassical façade of the 15th-century former stock exchange. The building has at various times housed the Consulate of the Sea, the Royal Assembly of Commerce and the Barcelona Stock Exchange. Picasso studied here when it was an art school. Tonight it is playing host to an ostentatious piss-up on a scale I’ve never previously witnessed.
The two main rooms of the palace are lit according to a fire-and-ice theme. There are women on 10-foot stilts wearing illuminated dresses, and a guy is chainsawing the Qualcomm logo out of a block of ice. There are near-naked women gyrating on pedestals, as suits take videos or selfies on their iPhones.
The buffet is a smorgasbord of elaborate finger food, continually being replenished, and every few minutes someone appears at my shoulder to top up my champagne.
Taken as a whole, the party is hypnotically flashy and over-the-top, and right now all throughout Barcelona there are dozens of similar corporate events taking place. It’s the same companies that compete over new devices, but tonight the competition is about ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ and who’s going to win the reputation for throwing the most lavish party.
Qualcomm’s offering is essentially an upmarket strip-club in an ancient palace. No doubt it has cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw this party. This in the same financial quarter in which Qualcomm announced more than a hundred redundancies. I wonder how many of those jobs could have been saved if they’d decided to forego the party instead.
Thursday 10:25 am | Fira España, Hall 4
It’s the final day of the conference, and people in the Halls appear increasingly tired and irritable. Two suits are fighting over a power socket. The smell is ostensibly that of feet. At registration, a female suit is puking into the gutter while a colleague rubs her back.
I’m riding one of the travellators when I spot a former colleague who I haven’t seen in years, travelling in the opposite direction.
He shouts my name, and so when we reach the end of our respective travellators we both double back to say hi.
Adrian gives me a hug, and squeezes my arm as he squeals.
“Oh my God, Tom, what are you doing here?!”
I tell him I’m still not quite sure.
Adrian is running one of Samsung’s four conference stands. His has the consumer range, including the recently announced Samsung S6, which last night was crowned Best New Phone at the World Mobile Awards. This is no small deal.
Adrian leans in to whisper: “Do you want to come see the new device?”
“Sure, that would be great,” I tell him.
“Okay but first let’s do a couple of Halls. I haven’t left the stand all week and I promised the girls I’d bring them fun stuff.”
“The girls?” I ask, struggling to picture Adrian as a dad.
“My interns,” he explains, rolling his eyes. “I promised them some swag.”
So Adrian and I do a Supermarket Sweep style drive-by through several of the Fira’s halls, swiping as many keyrings and pens and stickers as we can without coming across as outright thieves.
“Ok,” say Adrian, pockets full of swag. “Now let’s go and see the new device.”
It’s invite-only access, and outside the door there’s a suit losing his shit because they won’t let him in. Adrian breezes through with me in tow, and then there on a pedestal in the middle is the newest phone in the Samsung family.
“It looks amazing,” I tell him, with absolute sincerity. It is amazing. But I don’t mean the phone itself or any of its features, but how the whole thing is presented as if it’s the Holy Grail.
I pull out my own phone to check the time. Although my handset is a Samsung, it’s at least four generations out-of-date, and the screen is so cracks it’s like a mosaic. Adrian gives me a disappointed look that tells me he won’t be connecting with me on LinkedIn.
Friday 4:55 am | AirBnb Apartments
Last night, I finally ate a meal that required cutlery and didn’t consist of jamon y queso. But I only slept a couple of hours being woken by the unmistakeable queasy grip of food poisoning.
So I spend the darkest hours of my final night in Barcelona trembling and sweating in the bathroom, and without wishing to put too fine a point on it everything coming out of me is in liquid form and spraying downwards, and my trips to the bathroom are at intervals of no longer than five minutes, and as the sun comes up the prospect of having to check out of the apartment by 10am fills me with chronic dread, facing as I am the prospect of having to hand back the keys and then immediately begin a day-long mission in central Barcelona, wheeling my noisy luggage through cobbled streets in search of the next safe baño to go and destroy.
So when my AirBnB host appears at the door of my room I’m practically on my knees begging for him to let me stay a few more hours, trying to explain in Spanish that I’ve been poisoned by some dodgy conference canapé. When he tells me that I can stay as long as I like because nobody else will be checking in today, I am so grateful that I could hug him, but he’s already backing out of the door with a nervous smile.
And so here I am, clinging to my decency, taking on board fluids while trying to figure out what to take away from MWC. Having spent all week surrounded by the highly conceptual, this sudden bout of sickness is a brutal reminder of my inescapable physicality, of my shitting, pissing, human body. Perhaps it’s my own fault for breaking the ‘eating is cheating’ rule.
The irony of my present situation is not lost on me. Nor is the irony that despite the organisers proudly declaring gender neutrality, their claims fly in the face of how the mobile industry actually operates. Yet another irony is the fact that the conference’s main theme is that of enhanced connectivity, and yet the conference itself lacks the basic infrastructure to handle so many people. MWC is awash with ironies and contradictions, and yet it remains a straight-faced, irony-free zone.
The future I’ve been shown this week is one of virtual worlds and sentient houses and self-driving cars. I have witnessed a phone that can wirelessly charge off your body movement. I have watched a robot riding a Segway. I have explored a world in which everyday objects lose their inanimacy, capable now of tracking your every movement. I’ve been told that the future will make me more connected, but the over-riding feeling I’m left with is one of utter remoteness. It’s no longer science fiction to imagine a world in which VR experiences are a substitute for reality, to the point where we all become brains in vats, nobody can tell the difference.
All of this wraps up under one particular version of the future – the one being sold everywhere you look at MWC. It’s a future with plenty of momentum, to the point that there’s a disturbing inevitability to the way the technology is coming to dominate our lives. At the same time, I am now more than ever aware that other futures exist. Some of these may be less shiny and lower tech than others. They’ll likely be less efficient. I’m thinking of the sort of future that is powered by genuine human relationships and grounded in organic reality, and that’s the future where you’ll find me.