Leeds Digital Festival gets underway in earnest from today and could not come at a more appropriate time.
Real estate adviser CBRE pushed the city up the rankings in its latest ‘Tech Cities’ report from tenth to sixth as a major destination for the technology industry outside of London. And yet it comes during a period of intense soul searching amid the tech sector at large as it struggles to be a genuine force for good in the world.
The 10 day long programme boasts hundreds of events and is already set to surpass the 20,000 attendees that will participate in the grand showcase of the region’s technological future.
However, after even the most cursory of viewings of the programme for the event, this is no exercise in talking shop.
Almost all of the events are advisory and forward looking, helping prepare the region’s tech sector for the challenges ahead. Today’s programme alone features events on how firms can lead the charge against the rise of child exploitation online, what artificial intelligence means for individual sectors and whether or not automation really will signal the death knell for so many jobs.
In an era where so much economic discourse looks at the future through the prism of protectionism and when there is so much hankering for a nostalgic return to the orders and rules of the past, it is perhaps typical of the tech sector that the festival devotes so much time to the social impacts of the sector, alongside the issues which will shape and mold it going forward.
This sensibility was summed up eloquently in an interview The Yorkshire Post carried with the festival’s organiser Stuart Clarke.
Ahead of what is set to be the biggest event in the festival’s short four year history, one would have expected Mr Clarke to have been in marketing overdrive about its success.
Instead he struck a more emollient tone, warning that the city’s tech sector needed to do much more to improve social mobility, reach out to working class backgrounds and to ensure that the city at large was able to share in the spoils of the impressive growth seen across Leeds’s digital industries.
He told the YP: “We’ve seen lots of examples where companies are creating outreach programmes – going into schools, taking role models in and encouraging people to apply for roles. It is improving but I think it can be a lot better.”
It is a viewpoint that is being increasingly espoused across the digital sector worldwide. Also last week we spoke to Bruce Daisley, Twitter’s European vice president, who said that the platform - so often criticised for the dissemination of inaccurate and hateful information - was looking at a radical overhaul of its business model. Social media’s success has largely been built off of its ability to generate engagement through people’s anger and rage.
Posts that rile people, court controversy and rub people up the wrong way will generate far more interest. Mr Daisley said that Twitter was actively looking at how it can flip this model to promote more positive discourse.
I, along with many other individuals, will wait with baited breath to see how Twitter can make this sea change. I am not casting doubt on its sincerity, in fact I do not doubt it at all.
If we are to make tech a force for good that extends beyond more rapid communication and enhanced convenience of day-to-day life then we must heed the words of Mr Daisley and Mr Clarke.
There is a dramatic device used in literature dating back to Greek times known as deus ex machina. Translated as “God from machine” it refers to implausible plot changes in which seemingly insurmountable problems are solved from nowhere by a hitherto unseen machine which fixes everything.
I wonder if we could not turn this expression on its head to make the tech sector embody this more literally and act as a salvation for all whom it impacts on.
Clearly the will exists. All it takes is mass buy in to a concept that makes technology genuinely inclusive and does not place it within a velvet rope.
It’s a tough ask but one we all have a vested interest in.