3 November 2019

Are tech conferences outdated?

Climate action vs being in the presence of innovation. Which should we choose?

Pitch semi-final on Centre Stage during day two of Web Summit 2018 at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit via Sportsfile

I love a good gathering. There is something almost intangible about the physical buzz created by when sharing something you care about with other people. It’s one of the big reasons I have flown to 4 different continents to watch some of my favourite music performers play live – note: literally, no one has South Africa on their concert tour roaster.

But with every passing Friday, as children take to the streets to protest their survival on the planet, should we not be asking what the environmental toll of these types of gatherings are exacting on our future?

A new Guardian analysis from July has found that taking a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries around the world produces in a whole year. They even have a nifty widget that allows you to punch in your flight details and work out, which countries your holiday jaunt outstrips. According to them my flight from Berlin Tegel to Web Summit in Lisbon and back will generate about 381 kg CO2, and that there are 33 countries where the average person produces less CO2 than that in a year. This doesn’t even take into account the 1,634 kg CO2 I generated when I flew to Berlin from Johannesburg in the first place, waving from my plane window at a fair chunk of the African people that are producing these low number CO2 statistics.

Now, consider that I am only one of 70,000 people that will be making my way to Altice Arena in Lisbon to what is considered the biggest tech conference in the world. Even if we generously say that 15,000 of attendees will take trains or greener transport, 10,000 may still drive (a whole new fun bag of emissions) that still leaves more than half the attendees burning up the sky with their choices of chicken or beef all the while spewing actual tons of carbon emissions in their wake.

To be fair, this is not solely a Web Summit issue, it is just one of many conferences or festivals that will take place over the coming days of this week, as many more thousands fly across the globe to get the information fix of their choice. The difference is that Web Summit has some of the smartest minds in the world all under one roof, innovators that break the very conventions of human possibility every day, and yet we are still punting the same format we have since the roman forum.

In a room full of tech geniuses is there really no other way for us to find a more ecological way to connect with one another?

Maybe. But there is another argument to consider: the fact that in a growing digital age, the reason why we still travel great distances to go to events such as these is that technology is still a poor substitute for actual human connection.

Tim Berners-Lee, Web Foundation, interviwed by Laurie Segall, CNN, on the Centre Stage during the Web Summit 2018 Opening Ceremony at the Altice Arena in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Web Summit via Sportsfile

Many of the stages over the next 4 days of Web Summit have worked tirelessly in coding sprints – or, in some cases, board meetings – abusing their tired minds and bodies with lack of sleep and junk food (or caviar) to create the wonders that now allow us to foster entire relationships and company infrastructures digitally. And yet, even they know that little comes close to actually being in the same room as somebody. No matter how small the person appears on the stage from your seat in the 2nd to last back row, it is the mere act of sitting in the room with like-minded people listening to the marvels and pitfalls of invention that still creates the physical buzz of connection.

A connection amplified ten times over as it compounds around the presence of thousands of like-minded individuals. In the end, we are in it for the innovation, as much as we are in it for the crowd. And let’s not pretend that events like these don’t remain a great business case. Nothing quite like an eager, targeted, captive audience of thousands to punt your wares to.

So, it’s a tough one to crack, like with most things connected to our planet. Where do we draw the line of importance? A meeting of minds and human connection versus a few more years to do so. What is the point of living if you don’t get to connect to people? When do we exchange the easy (and fun) for the new? I have no idea but maybe over the next few days, on one of the stages, I may find out.

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