Participating in Gather 2019 – a rollercoaster between conspiracy theory spokespersons and rethinking governmental surveillance.

* User data and how to use/not use it is always a hot topic. By being able to control your own data and whom to share it with we might be able to contribute to science.
* When future love has gone digital – is it possible to design dating tech for non-app users?
* Sharing is money-and-rights-caring; Imogen Heap wants to sidestep middlemen and use blockchain to give musicians more ownership over their money and data.

(Long read 6 min)
Participating in the annual Gather festival (read about last years Gather here) means taking part in one of the coolest and most creative cross-cultural tech and innovation festivals in Europe. With a certain boldness (booking a flat earther as keynote), a deep dive into democracy, power and society at large and a their own disco and sauna, Gather is nothing but a truly unique experience. And no, it’s not a side show parading the continent. 

This Stockholm based conference has the finger on the pulse within all areas you didn’t know you needed, and takes new twists in areas you thought were long overdue. This year, the themes were Humans & Machines, Democracy & Power, Business & Transactions, Media & Creativity and Urban Planning & Society. Originally planned to relocate from Nobelberget to the new Slakthusområdet, Gather was held in Sickla due to prolonged renovation in said Slakthusområde. 

The opening day started out strong in true Gather spirit with a robot interpreting poems, the much talented music/computer artist Chagall playing her songs literally on and with her body while singing and Flat Earth Spokesperson Mark K Sargent on stage. The booking of a flat earth spokesperson had awoken a lot of voices within the Gather community – how could someone so obviously wrong be invited to Gather? Wasn’t it a right up offense to the audience? However, the main area was packed as Sargent took the stage. During the interview by author and journalist David McRaney (specialist in conspiracy theories), it became quite clear how our biases as humans easily trick us into believing a conspiracy theory even against our main beliefs, and that great oratory, consistent and qualitative content creation smoothly pave the way for any message out there. Since content and content creation have been the hot topic for the last couple of years, it was quite interesting to hear the story of how Sargent gained a great following because of said well-produced content. Looking into the digital strategy behind the content plan ands its spread makes me wonder if it isn’t time to update the words of Marshall McLuhan (“the medium is the message”) to be the be the other way around.

Picture of Chinese credit fraud

China doesn’t have the same credit control system as many other countries.

Following the keynote, the first “Age of Surveillance Economy” session by Andie Zhang left lots to ponder about: in the western world we don’t like being surveilled by the government, but how about when you live in a fast moving economy with 800 million internet users and where no credit checks are possible and fake review farms is common? Are we as westerners fooling ourselves into a false security? I thought Miss Zhang was refreshingly thought provoking and frank. We do know that for example that the new iOS has a long list of security privacy features, which makes it easier for all to get on top of your personal data. 

The topic of controlling your own data is something that Robin Jeffner from Origoprogrammet talked about (full disclosure: Origoprogrammet is one of Heroes’ partners). As we generate more and more data every day, why can’t we truly choose with whom to share it? Jeffner presented a theory concerning an algorithm enabling us to get a key to our own data and deciding what to share to whom. This could be a true democratic break-through as our governmental and health care systems are growing larger every day – and is unable to share correct data to health care professionals, scientists etc. For instance, there is a Facebook group asking people with rare conditions to contribute their diagnoses to create a mutual understanding of the conditions’ state and cure. Imagine if the Origoprogram was in use and everyone globally could share their data anonymously for the sake of science!

To cherry pick a few other sessions on data, but just not any data, the “Love as a service” was a stand out day one. Is true love possible – and is it possible through tech? Will AI help us choose partners? And by saying “us”, is the future of dating really beneficial for everyone? The breakthrough of online tech leaves not only offline people behind; studies show that men with no higher education are less prone to use dating apps and tech. When new social online behavior appears, it might make other groups, with limited read-between-the-line compatibility, to fail fast and hard. However, there are new dating apps focussing on these dilemmas: Relate is a value based app starting with your values, finding other singles relating to the same values creating a more meaningful approach than just endless swiping. To conclude; it is crucial when creating a digital strategy for dating apps to look into all aspects of user behavior – both offline and online!

Looking into day two, Elsa Sotiriadis aka “The Biofuturist” started out strong talking about how bio and tech are converging. When talking about biotech, the question of the brain is always on the agenda; would we like a chip in the brain to regulate us? I can clearly see a parallel to the 2002 movie Minority report, where the police apprehends criminals based on foreknowledge provided by three psychics, but also a possible way to cure and reprogram ourselves when affected by neural diseases. But looking into biotech is also a question of morals; do we want another Gattaca, where only some people are chosen for certain tasks based on the genetics? Do we want to become disembodied once and for all? The session raised many interesting questions and it’s hard not to draw a parallel with the moral questions surrounding robots and work ethics.

The fourth really thought provoking theme centered around deep fakes and metaverse: what to believe in a digital world when there even are free apps for switching faces on people? If we experience a live concert in the game Fortnite, does that count as a live experience or as a part of the game? What is perceived as reality, and how should we relate to a meta universe? Ylva Hansdotter, VR expert, talked about how VR can help people learn and understand. During an experiment helping perpetrators understand their victims through VR, the perpetrators were put in the position as the victims. This helped the perpetrators realise the position they put the victims in, and made it easier for them to receive counseling. 

Gather closed with a keynote with Silvana Imam being interviewed by Paulina Modlitba, curator of Gather. Being a Swedish hip hop icon turning into a business tycoon, Silvana keeps her feet on the ground, her head cool and always stays true to herself.

As in previous years, I wish I could have cloned myself. Maybe then I could take part in the labs and the sessions and the sauna at the same time. The location for this year’s Gather made it somewhat less than it usually is, and I pray Gather will be back with even more thought provoking and disrupting sessions next year in Slakthusområdet.