Watching the World Rot at Europe's Largest Tech Conference

Notes from a writer’s visit to Web Summit

Rafael Marchante / Reuters

Web Summit is Europe’s largest tech conference, and a terrifying place in which to get lost. In this vast grazing-ground for investors and entrepreneurs, thousands stampede in what looks like panic through the three vast halls of Lisbon’s FIL exhibition center. People are clogged up everywhere: Cigarette smoke drifts from the hundred-turreted human chimney outside every doorway, great impassable bogs of attendees clot around the start-up booths, long and desperate lines coil out from the bathrooms and the instant-coffee stations and the promotional virtual-reality headset displays. Outside, backed by the fading white tubular ’90s-futurism of the exhibition center, two long and ceaseless streams of people rush into and out of the summit, guarded by Portuguese cops gripping assault rifles and pacing short, tetchy distances. As long as you move in the direction of the crowd, it’s possible to breathe, but if you stand still for even a moment it becomes vertiginous.

Across dozens of stages, various electrified prophets announce the coming of a new world. One is showing, through a chart of human population, that all of history prior to the Industrial Revolution, its wars and empires and art and thought, is entirely irrelevant; humanity learned its purpose in the 19th century, which is to innovate; more is always better. Another is rapturously announcing that you can “interact with a virtual bartender” over Facebook Messenger. Why? It’s not clear. Everything is precisely itemized, the 20-minute time-slots and the numbered booths, but nothing seems to quite make sense: structure without order, system without restraint. This is where the future goes to be born—as always, in the “formless, mute, infant and terrifying form of monstrosity.”

There are, broadly speaking, two different ways of thinking about technology. The first is strictly functional: You look at what a tool does, how it interacts with other tools and helps its user achieve their aims. A hammer drives in a nail; a virtual bartender is interacted with over Facebook Messenger. Web Summit is a grand exposition of all these new tools; here you can find the things that might be making all our tasks easier for decades to come.

In the second, broader, more materialist account, technology is seen as regulating relations between people. A hammer doesn’t just drive a nail, but builds a wooden house in which the distinct family unit can wall themselves off from the world; a virtual bartender keeps you in that house long after dark in a silent city full of humming unearthly-white screens. As Marx writes in The Poverty of Philosophy, “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord: the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist”; as Lewis Mumford argued, the machine isn’t so much an ordinary if complex object as it is a mode of organization; the first such mega-machines, in ancient Egypt, used human bodies as their working parts, and their products are still here today. In our own society the products are ephemeral, and its structure is one of increasing chaos. You can watch that chaos roiling through an exhibition center in Lisbon. Web Summit is a hyper-concentrated image of our entire world, and the panic and confusion that is to come.

You can go further. In the accounts given by philosophers like Bernard Stiegler, the human stands on the point of vanishing entirely; we become something incidental to a total technological system. As he points out, a human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society. We create tools, but technical apparatuses and their milieus advance according to their own logic, and these non-living objects have their own strange form of life. Our brains developed to control our hands; human consciousness itself was only the by-product of a technical evolution that moved from flint-knapping to the hammer to the virtual bartender; its real job isn’t to perform any particular task but to perpetuate itself.  “Robots,” he writes, are “seemingly designed no longer to free humanity from work but to consign it either to poverty or stress.” Whatever illusion of predominance we had is fading: For others, like Benjamin Bratton, the real political subject is no longer a human individual but a “user,” which can be any kind of biological or digital assemblage. With production automated according to algorithmically generated targets, with the vast majority of all written language taking the form of spam and junk code, this system has less and less use for us—even as a moving part—with every passing day.

Web Summit is where humanity rushes towards its extinction.

This would explain a few things. For instance, what do any of the companies exhibiting at Web Summit actually do? Much of the conference space is given over to these start-up exhibitors; each of them gets a meter of wall and a plug socket for their laptop, along with a big sign in which they announce their ambitions in terms that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Of course, the tech industry has its own specialized discourse, so while one company announces that it “brings the next generation of B2C, B2B, B2E platforms to a high qualified partners network supported by a great business model,” you can make the vague assumption that all this gibberish might actually mean something to someone somewhere. Similarly, with TrackingDoc, tagline “selling is a game,” which lets you “discover how people engage with your sales documents.” It’s a strange kind of language, all modifiers bleached lifeless by cliché, employing the most grandiose terms (‘discover,’ ‘transformational,’ ‘revolution’) to describe what tends to be a new way of doing paperwork, spinning precariously on the edge of meaninglessness, but it’s still language. But what about the firm calling itself (for unknown and possibly unpleasant reasons) Kwanko, announcing simply that “data is the new performance?” Or Lapa, which claims without any other information to be “transforming the way people search and protect all the things they can’t live without?” Or CrowdT, a “crowdfunding platform using apparel to raise funds?” This isn’t meaning, in any of its usual senses, something that exists to be understood, but the zombie signifier, words building and feeding on each other to form a system terrifyingly self-sustaining and utterly opaque.

Among the companies that have a clearly comprehensible purpose, many are downright sinister. Something called InvoiceCapture “allows companies to collect debt efficiently without any human intervention needed,” conjuring the horrifying image of a robotic debt collector without conscience or emotion, a fully-automated social sadism running rampant over the world, beyond law, beyond responsibility, beyond hope. But possibly the worst of all was a firm called Tap My Back—Build Stronger Teams. “Boost workplace motivation with a simple employee-recognition software,” it announces. “It’s like saying ‘thank you’ but with badges and on a public feed.” Finally, something to relieve executives of the burden of having to personally thank their workers; finally, a way to discipline your workforce through a quantifiable and patronizing system of shame and reward; finally, the kindergarten gold-star method has been digitized and is ready to conquer the world.

We are, most likely, in the middle of another soon-to-be-devastating tech bubble. For all the usual guff about dynamism and entrepreneurship, it’s clear that Web Summit isn’t really about showcasing new ideas or changing the way anyone does anything. The point is to attract buyouts or investment; this is how so much of the tech industry functions. (Social networks, for instance, generally make their money through investment or market flotation; they build up a vast userbase first, and defer the question of how to actually squeeze a profit out of them later.) The game isn’t to build anything that might last, but to secure just enough money to land unharmed when the crash finally happens. Very few of the ideas are actually new; they’re just bits of other, more successful companies cobbled together: Yooture is “online dating for jobs,” wiPet is Fitbit for your dog (“Begin a new relationship with your pet”), Mooringo is Uber for luxury yachts. Governments see the tech industry as the saviors of their economies and the future of work: de-centered and entrepreneurial, with people increasingly self-employed. Tech companies are roaringly productive, but they don’t need to produce anything in particular. Only the anxiety and desperation of a species liberated from purpose.

The people I spoke to at Web Summit did not seem entirely happy. Many of them had the hunted, hungry, over-caffeinated look of someone possessed; they freely confessed how exhausting it all was, the lectures from grinningly over-optimistic data barons; the slimy culture of hero-worship, in which thousands are sent dizzy by the slightest whiff of an Elon Musk or a Jeff Bezos or this year’s star attendee, Bono; the constant networking, talking and pitching and selling all day, with mixed results and for reasons that seemed increasingly obscure. (After all, the vast majority of tech start-ups—Forbes puts it at 90%—will fail, and exhibiting at Web Summit doesn’t seem to improve anyone’s chances.) Many worked for firms that couldn’t stump up the money for a booth (exhibiting can cost anywhere from €1,950 to €10,950); their employees were reduced to wandering the FIL center in search of anyone to pitch to, messaging potential clients or investors on the dedicated Web Summit app, booking endless meetings, contributing to the general stampede.

The conference advertises its pub crawls through Lisbon: “Some of the most valuable connections our attendees make,” it claims, “are forged after hours”; for instance, “Uber raised a famous round of funding in a pub at Web Summit.” I saw this happen on a Tuesday night: in narrow cobbled streets and hilltop squares defaced with big Web Summit logos, crowds sprawled in manic aimlessness, minor reproductions of the asocial frenzy of the conference halls. A human enjoyment as basic as getting drunk together had been transformed into something else; everyone was still at work, being pulled along by the logic of whatever it is that they’d collectively invented. In a corner of one bar, a muted TV was showing the presidential election on CNN: state by state slowly turning red, a grinning goblin creeping closer to the brink of power. People around me were worried; they thought that a nuclear-armed Donald Trump might lead to the end of humanity. For all the tech industry’s claims to be the leading edge of tomorrow, these people were still thinking in terms of a very old world. The end of humanity had already arrived; it was everywhere around us.