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.