Contrary to the opinion of much of Hollywood, the architects of dystopia will not be the corporate leaders, technologists or marketers of this world. After four days at WPP Stream among the company of some of the world’s best in those fields, I’m now clearer than ever on that.
In one of many discussion sessions I joined, participants were asked to set out an evil plan and then define how they could use technology and subversive marketing mind-tricks to achieve it. Amid the scribbling of sci-fi narratives the implicit irony was clearly understood. That’s not we do for a living: we are creators not destroyers, engaged in trying to improve the world for people wherever and whenever we can. Dystopia is the polar opposite of our professional goal.
Despite pleading our philosophical innocence, all of us agreed that all is far from well in global society, at least according to our own sense of how things ought to be: undesirable referenda results, unpalatable political leadership candidacies, and inexcusable inequality being the main areas of concern. Many discussions sprang up seeking their cause.
I joined one group of Generation X-ers (I qualified for membership although still managed to raised the group’s average age) where we berated our failure to carry through to present day the youthful progressive liberalism that we all agreed had peaked around 1992.
Another session examined the role of robots, specifically robots that make decisions on our behalf, and how they might shield us from truth, acting as electronic echo chambers that continuously present partial points of view until we believe their mistruths to be all there is to know.
There was a discussion on our veneration of technologists and how our willingness, or at best apathy, to give them our data might result in manipulations well beyond our control. There were many more similar conversations that took place, often simultaneously – impossible for one person to attend them all. There were no rhetorical presentations, just discussions where morality, politics, economics, sociology and science permeate the topic, with humour, provocation and wonderment thrown in to keep one on one’s toes.
From our ivory towers
A valid but troublesome theme that ran as a thread through many sessions I participated in took its viewpoint from some way above the microscope and examined society as a whole. After all, many of the circumstances we were seeking explanations for were not governmental nor corporate impositions, they were chosen by society itself. Provocatively we asked the profoundly undemocratic question of whether society is capable of deciding what is right for it, or, whether we were just sore losers because, from our ivory towers, we didn’t like what society had decided to do.
We were forced to ask if society is an "it" at all. Fortunately, recalling Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 declaration to Woman's Own magazine – gender equality was another key focus and we could well have spent many days on the downstream impact of the media and political landscape of the 80s, I’m sure – that, "there is no such thing as society", was enough to convince us of the perils of that debate and we set off to placate our minds with workshops that taught us how to solve Rubik's Cubes, design selfie-emojis, pilot drones and build bonfires. Phew.
It’s smart stuff, no doubt. Smart enough to realise that the questions we were asking were too complex to be answered by any one thing. Smart enough to realise that we were in part responsible, despite good intentions, for creating some of the causes of current malaise. It challenges us to ask the really big questions about what’s wrong in the world – not to revel in it (as some politicians might be accused of) but to fix it; seeing the positives and the opportunities, no matter how dark the sky.
There can be no doubt that there are some serious and important things that are wrong in our world today and it certainly isn't sufficient to consider the solution to be a three-day conference, no matter how inspiring it may have been. But in what I saw at Stream there is hope. There’s hope because smart people are focused on finding solutions even if that means admitting that they were partially, however inadvertently, to blame. There’s hope because dystopia is truthfully nobody’s aim.
There’s hope because the inherent ambition of the vast majority of humanity is to create not destroy.
Jim Prior is chief executive of The Partners and Lambie-Nairn