Activate 09 at The Guardian: Notes and take-away quotes - Part 1

 by Martin Belam, 2 July 2009

On Wednesday I spent a brilliant day at Kings Place at The Guardian's Activate 09 event. It was a packed programme, which I'd like to blog about at length. To be honest though, by the time I left my brain was absolutely fizzing, and the day had covered so much ground that it was hard to know where to start.

Setting up Activate 09

Gerry Jackson and SWRadio Africa

So, I thought I'd start with what was by far the most emotionally moving talk of the day, given by Gerry Jackson. Her talk was about her attempts to get independent news into Zimbabwe as director of SWRadio Africa. She'd previously worked at the state broadcaster, and knew the unspoken limits of what could be reported there.

Her attempts to provide an independent voice had been campaigned against by Mugabe's Government, who were happy to see SWRadio portrayed as something sowing 'ethnic hatred', and who had actively blocked their shortwave signal. SMS and podcasts have been more effective ways to get the message across, but they are limited in the number of messages they can send due to lack of funds - you can help by donating here.

There was something uplifting about the presentation as well.

Whilst there were pictures of terrible human rights abuses, and people gripped by utter despair, there were also images of those employing gallows humour to get through their situation. The work of the SWRadio crew was also a testament to the spirit of wanting to change things for the better, whatever the obstacles. Working at a large news organisation it is all too easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day intricacies of 'producing new media', and to forget about the real and profound impact that the content we produce can have on the ground in places where there is no free media.

I was struck by something else though.

The images of abuse Gerry showed will stay with the audience for a long time. I sometimes think that when we debate some of the major geo-political fault-lines in our world, we forget the power of those sorts of images. Western television generally shows us a much more 'acceptable' and bloodless version of global conflict than the images that people in the areas of conflict themselves see. To sanitise them on the grounds of our own tastes and sensibilities makes it harder to tell the story of the human suffering behind those battles.

The end of...well...everything

In a different sense, Nick Bostrom's talk was also profoundly depressing and yet uplifting at the same time. Statistically he pointed out that not one terminal extinction level event had ever happened to the human race. However, he added the caveat that whilst we have spent hundreds of thousands of years dodging fire, famine, flood and pestilence, we don't really have an established track record of dodging nuclear armageddon or nanotechnology accidents, so it has hard to judge how threatening they might be. And we do know that something like 99.9% of all species who have ever lived on the earth have ended up extinct - and I don't like the look of those odds.

Nick Bostrom's slide about natural and man-made disasters

The slide that most filled me with fear in the end was the concept that, in our rush to make the Internet and technology faster and more intelligent, we are unwittingly trapped in some headlong stampede towards some kind of 'ultimate machine'. This would be more intelligent than humans, and in turn rapidly beget machines that were more intelligent than it, which might then accidentally wipe out the universe in the blink of an eye.

And all because in the early 2000s we thought it was a good idea that people could watch Susan Boyle on YouTube...

Links to explore...

There are some more sessions and themes from the day that I'd like to blog about further, but for now I'll just limit myself to a list of some of the sites and projects I noted to check out:

  • Omnifocus - a geo-spatial aware 'to do' list for the iPhone that prioritises the things you can do from your current location.
  • Fusecal - an app for screenscraping events from websites and putting them into machine-readable calendar formats (although that site is just producing a bad_httpd_conf error at the moment).
  • - a new Schulze & Webb production for the BBC which aggregates conversation around programmes.
  • - looked like Slashdot ported over to a parallel universe where people were helpful instead of sarcastic.
  • World Digital Library - collection of scanned 'unique' book artifacts from around the world that would have utterly transformed my history degree had it been available at the time.
Activate logo amongst the Kings Place art

1 Comment

'The end of well everything'

Martin - lighten up, meditate a bit, take on a more buddhist/holistic view of the world - accept our place as just another species that will become extinct at some point.

Now say after me OMMMMMM :)

PS this bit sounds like it could make a great plot for a film "This would be more intelligent than humans, and in turn rapidly beget machines that were more intelligent than it, which might then accidentally wipe out the universe in the blink of an eye." ;-)

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