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Re:publica Dublin keeps focus on technology and society

Like its parent event, Re:publica Dublin – the spin-off of the hugely popular annual Berlin-based Re:publica digital society festival – proved again that it is the epitome of eclectic.

Kicking off with a session on the psychedelics experience in the digital age, and ending with ways of countering dangerous online speech, Re:publica covered highly varied terrain over this year’s two-day festival, from climate change to EU money flows, audio-spatial storytelling to taxation, Dublin’s housing crisis to the potential for cyborg lawsuits, and much more.

“Dublin is a much more intimate environment than Berlin, with a much better opportunity to meet and network,” Re:publica co-founder and CEO Andreas Gebhard told the audience last Thursday in a welcome address in Smithfield’s Light House Cinema.

For the first time ever, the Re:publica organisation took the festival outside of Berlin last year for a one-day event in Dublin, testing the idea that the festival could become a platform for challenging discussions and for promoting digital creativity across Europe.

This year, Gebhard said, Dublin would be jointed by a similar event in Thessaloniki in Greece, with plans to expand to other cities across Europe in the future.

“We want to try to find different aspects of digital society across Europe, and meet and discuss what the future will bring,” he said.

Re:publica in Berlin runs for several days each May, features more than a thousand speakers (with a close to 50/50 gender split, in defiance of the many technology events which claim they cannot find women speakers or panelists), and last year drew over 9,000 visitors.

Unusual

For an event of its size, Re:publica is unusual in remaining focused on society – in the broadest sense – and not having a dominating corporate or business focus. Organisers say the event is designed for anyone to attend, not just technologists, because after all, technology is so much a part of everyday life.

The intersection between psychedelics and technology might not seem so obvious, but the opening session, presented by Ciara Sherlock of the Irish Psychedelic Society and DIT computer science lecturer Brian Duggan, highlighted interesting connections between some key tech figures and their use of mind-altering substances (Steve Jobs being the most famous).

Duggan spoke about programming as “a flow state when you are completely immersed in what you are doing – another kind of altered state of consciousness” and provided examples of how some coders have created artistic virtual reality environments that mirror or enhance psychedelic experiences.

Immersive environments needn’t be visual, though. Mushan Zer-Aviv, design lead with the Public Knowledge Workshop in Tel Aviv, presented a project in which writers of varied identities, politics and religious backgrounds partnered with technologists to create an app to aurally explore a Jerusalem of the future through what he calls “speculative tourism”.

Users listen to various stories unfold via the app as they stand in spots around the city, a special kind of sound-based augmented reality that prompts listeners to experience both the present and possible futures, he said.

Scathing examination

But there was no shortage of examination of current events over the two days of the event, either. Walter Palmetshofer offered a scathing examination of the tax structures and corporate protectionism that has created so many low-tax environments and tax dodges for giant multinationals.

Corporate income seen as a proportion of GDP has been on a “downward slope” from 4-5 per cent in the 1940s to 1950s versus only about 1 per cent now, he said.

“You have basically [the economic equivalent of] a hacking team working around the clock making sure the corporates pay the lowest taxes, and it’s perfectly legal. There’s a lot of ‘cyber’ going on in this,” he said.

In particular, he noted that many companies, especially the tech sector, now deal in intangible assets like intellectual property rather than real goods. The assets are easily moved around digitally, to beneficial tax environments.

Dublin’s attractiveness to the global tech sector – in part because of such tax structures – has had an alarming impact on housing availability and costs, according to a panel of housing activists at the end of the first day of Re:publica.

“As they build the tech world in the city centre, we’re not going to see housing provided for families but houses provided for single people and couples. as long as people are willing to pay the high rents it’s going to keep driving up the rents, said Aisling Hedderman of the North Dublin Bay Housing Crisis Community.

But all panelists agreed that the housing crisis affected everyone, including tech employees, and the solution was not to pit different groups against each other but demand policy change and more social housing.

Cyborgs

On the second day, Shane P McNamee looked at how cyborgs – which he defines as the “biomechanical augmentation of human bodies” – might impact law and societal norms. While we still tend to view the idea of such augmentation as the stuff of science fiction or Hollywood, McNamee provided many examples of how this ongoing revolution is happening now.

Already, biomedical devices and prosthesis enhancements are pushing at such boundaries. For example, athletes with a running blade can sometimes outperform those with two legs, while laws do not currently consider the data-privacy implications of chip implants. As cyborg capabilities grow, so will the legal quandaries and need for more encompassing laws, he suggested.

Could we also change the ways we govern? New Zealander Richard Bartlett told of how he has been travelling the world to study “nonhierarchical groups” that attempt to find ways to decentralise power, and challenged the audience to think about how such approaches could become more mainstream in both government and business.

The groups he looked at “seem to hit the same failure points”. Society’s “most urgent imbalances fall on gender, race and class lines” and these often are duplicated even in nonhierarchical groups. Women often end up with the burden of carer roles (think of who tends to organise company events, company sympathy or congratulations cards) and overall, power is rarely shared equally, he said.

“But I’m hopeful that we can solve these human problems at a small scale,” Bartlett said. “I’m seeing these little glimpses happening.”

Spectrum

At the other end of the spectrum, a panel took on the topic of entrepreneurship at Irish universities. During an hour-long discussion on the pros and cons of how entrepreneurship gets integrated into a university environment, panellists argued that entrepreneurship has an important and needed place in modern universities, but should not be an overriding philosophy for how a university itself is run.

As with any festival with several simultaneous sessions, attendees inevitably had to make frustrating choices about which talks and panels to attend, and a modest attendance overall meant audiences could be small for individual talks.

But Re:publica’s organisers say they are determined to slowly grow the event here, as they did over a decade in Berlin. They closed this year’s festival with a promise to be back in 2018. In the meantime, organisers will be uploading videos of talks from Dublin and Thessaloniki to the Re:publica website (https://re-publica.com/).

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