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Society Techonomy Events

We Love Big Questions. It’s the Answers that are Hard.

John Chambers during his session at Techonomy 2017 last November. (Photo: Paul Sakuma)

Tech moves quickly. People move slowly. For most of us, understanding our own behavior and motives as citizens, friends, and consumers can’t even catch up to the reality of our 24/7 immersion in our smartphone screens.

Yet we have to live; we have to keep our societies healthy; and many of us have to lead in our organizations. This all feels unusually hard at the moment. I cannot recall a time when people seemed so confused about what was the best course of action for a day, a career, or a lifetime. Making money is hard enough, but is it even the right priority?

Last week’s essay in the New York Times by a supposed Trump administration insider, and the controversy that followed, underscores how hard it is to know what to do now, or how to do it. (The New Yorker’s thoughtful Masha Gessen tackles the ambiguity in this also-controversial article.)

Understanding reality is hard. And today’s reality is so deeply infused by radical transformations imposed by tech that grokking it becomes all the harder. Regardless of your views on the current U.S. administration, what is the proper response to it, as citizens or businesspeople? Do nothing? Applaud? Applaud and cry at the same time? Hit the streets? Some are inspired to turn into full-time political activists for the first time. Others want to leave the country. Others are just into making as much money as possible while the economy soars. And make no mistake, for good or ill this new political reality is created and maintained in part by very new tech tools–not just Trump’s use of Twitter, but algorithmic trading, digital advertising (and its abuses), and the feeling we’ve all been given that we have to know what’s happening now right now, no matter what.

In New York we got used to having the richest guy in town as mayor–someone who made his money with the city’s largest technology company, employing the largest number of programmers, at the time, in the city. Now we have the spectacle of the world’s richest man–by far–owning the major national political paper in our capital, at a time of political ferment. And of course he made his money by running that technology colossus for which we do not even have language.

I am convinced that the radical dislocations imposed on all of us by our constant use of smartphones, along with other tech-driven challenges, have compounded the problem. We are literally uncertain what to do from minute to minute–look at our phones, or live in the real world? And what does it do to our brains, for example, to know that we are constantly being watched by technological surveilance–not just online but in the real world. (Just ask the citizens of Xinjiang China.)

Leaders are equally flummoxed when faced with the challenges of transforming their organizations and modernizing them, constantly, to adapt to the constant flux of digital evolution. The reality of a gigantic Amazon looking into and over every industry is a new reality that demands a new language and approach to strategy that we haven’t yet come up with. We have no laws, or even appropriate words, to address the new presence of globe-spanning profit colossi whose powers trump governments. (That was a deliberately-chosen adjective, too. It has deeper and weirder meaning now.)

MIT’s Rodney Brooks

We need help figuring out what is what. But I am certain that getting together changemakers, innovators, analysts, journalists, and investors can help us collectively cope, understand, and strive to be better. One of the best ways to advance our understanding and to gain a feeling of solid ground beneath our feet is to talk actively and intensively with others, even those with whom we disagree.

How much of our personal and collective energy should go towards social betterment, mutual understanding, and addressing the still grotesque conditions in which so many people around the world and in the U.S. continue to live? And how much is tech fostering inequality and creating division, instead of bringing us together, as so many of us expected and hoped it would? Were we naïve? Is tech just neutral and we have been using it wrong?

These are the kinds of questions Techonomy was founded to explore.

We need to care about things like global economic development, tech addiction, corporate culture and innovation, the future of tech-inflected politics, how we work, the future of libraries, how tech could be the salvation of America’s disgraceful healthcare system, business leadership, the Chinese auto industry, and even growing fake sugar in yeast. Every one of those is a topic that we will formally tackle at this fall’s Techonomy 2018 conference, on November 11 through November 13.

Our annual California retreat is not what most attendees expect. Sure, it’s at a beautiful hotel, but it’s not just another tech conference. In mood and the quality of attendees it’s like a mini-TED, except that in-room dialogue among everyone present, not just hearing wonderful onstage presentations, is the top priority. It’s like a gigantic dinner party where the guest list is surprising, the conversation is challenging and inspiring, and the insights and good memories linger. And it’s programmed in advance to insure we touch on the most important issues.

Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka, pictured above. (Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Pahlka/Code for America)

This November, we mix together a deliberately diverse group of guests: a world-leading roboticist; the only “chief equality officer” we know of in American big business; plus Code for America leader Jen Pahlka, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, and Beijing-based AI expert Kai-Fu Lee.

John Chambers, one of corporate America’s most successful leaders, said of last year’s event that he got “more benefit from attending Techonomy than from any other conference in recent years.” We’re honored he feels that way and proud to say he’ll be back this year.

If you can’t be with us in Half Moon Bay, be sure to tune in to the livestream from our home page, starting Sunday, November 11.

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