Anti-Static: the Future arrives @ Berlin, just in time

The end of August usually has a stagnant feel to it in Berlin. Everyone’s shut up shop and skipped town for a holiday, and there’s an unmistakably hot, urban smell wafting about the streets. In a busy city, this sudden static bout is so noticeable that the Germans even have a word for it: Sauregurkenzeit (literally ‘sour gherkin time’) or ‘off season’.

But not this year. Staticism’s antithesis arrived on 21st August at Tempelhof, in the form of Campus Party Europe – a 10,000 strong collaborative technology event of talks, workshops and coding competitions.  Ostensibly a festival, Campus Party is funded by huge tech companies like Google and Telefonica looking for Europe’s best brains.

Featuring keynote speakers such as W3 inventor Sir Tim Berners Lee and multi-million selling author Paulo Coelho, CP was like a futurism expo, so after it finished on 25th, we were given a week to come to terms with the shape of things to come before TEDxBerlin on 31st.

With the ambitious title of Future 3.0, the independently organised TED event was true to its brand, disseminating innovative and inspiring ideas worth sharing (albeit at the much inferior venue of Berlin’s Messe). Unsurprisingly, there was some topical crossover between the two events, the most significant of which was not so much in terms of individual technology or inventions, but overarching themes and predictions for the future.

Particularly salient and concurrent were the auguries of two keynote speakers: Don Tapscott at Campus Party and René Schuster at TEDx. A leading authority on innovation, media, and the economic and social impact of technology, Tapscott’s talk addressed the power of new digital networks in changing the broken social and economic systems of our time. Schuster is CEO of Telefonica Germany, a multinational communications giant.

Both men spoke of the present as being a time of great change. Not since the industrial revolution has society faced such deep permutations in the way we live, communicate and consume. We are on the cusp of a truly digital revolution, as children born to a connected world come of age as ‘digital natives’. According to Schuster, we are “generation flux: the last of the unconnected.” Those of us born before, say, 1990, are ill at ease with the idea of being ‘always on’, constantly connected. The younger among us much less so.

To Telefonica’s CEO, these facts clearly represent exciting business opportunities, though he also touched upon the potential of new digital technologies to give people a voice that was previously suppressed, “turning fear into confidence; isolation into unity”.

Tapscott took this idea further with an outline of his new book, Macrowikinomics. Mass collaboration, he argued, can change everything – not only in businesses but also in institutions and wider society. Our current systems for problem solving are clearly broken, and a paradigm shift is required – indeed it is already occurring organically and unstoppably – to address the new world order. A truly connected world redistributes power and produces a novel means of production in the hands of interconnected individuals. We’ve already seen the power of social networks in last year’s Arab Spring, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Harnessing the power of networks can bring in a new era of democracy based on active citizenship and increased transparency.

In 1998, William Gibson, prescient as ever, wrote “If it has been our business, as a species, to dam the flow of time through the creation and maintenance of mechanisms of external memory, what will we become when all these mechanisms, as they now seem intended ultimately to do, merge? The end-point of human culture may well be a single moment of effectively endless duration, an infinite digital Now.”

Whether we’re at the end-point, or the cusp, of unprecedented change, or if those two scenarios  ultimately signify the same, this much is true:  the future has arrived, and it won’t wait around.