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Tech as a discursive space or Why this non-techie goes to tech conferences

November 30 2020

I recently had the opportunity to attend the FWD50 virtual conference. FWD50 brings together experts, government and industry folk interested in using technology for social good. While sharing my notes with a few colleagues from my department who had also attended, I started to put into words something I’ve been experiencing for a while – I love tech conference even though I’m totally a not a techie person! My partner and colleagues no doubt have many anecdotes attesting to my lack of tech savviness. So why do I keep getting drawn back to this space, event after event?

If, like me, you’re not really a technical person, but you’re still interested in what a tech conference has to offer, here are some of the events I participated in and enjoyed:

These conferences and events have permitted me to discover some amazing thinkers from a variety of fields. For example, I first saw Paola Antonelli, the multi-talented MoMa Senior Curator and major design influencer who blew my mind with her talk on the intersection of nature and technology at SXSW in 2015. A few years later, in 2018, Pia Mancini’s keynote on the future of global governance during Personal Democracy Forum expressed exactly concerns many of us were trying to articulate about the future of data and citizenship.

My fascination with the world of tech started around 2012 and fully took off in 2014. That year, I left my job as executive director of a non-profit I had been leading for 5 years and had built from the ground up. I had become frustrated with what I viewed as a lack of ambition and innovation in my organization and in the not-for-profit sector at large. I perceived a self-diminishing attitude that caused us to strive for the lowest common denominator in our organizational practices. Is your budget in the black? Good. Strive for no more. Do you have quorum at your annual general meetings? If so, that’s a sign of a healthy organization! (Really? What about all those members of yours who don’t show up to meetings because of geographical or financial barriers?) I was attracted by the tech and start-up world at that time with its “We can fix it!” and “We can do it better!” attitude.

And they do all of that while being cool! I have to admit, I think a second significant part of mine and others’ attraction to tech is the manifestation of a generational divide. My generation grew up under the shadow of baby boomers, so to speak, and when we saw a sector that did things “differently”, in a “new” way, and where raw talent seemed to matter more than having decades of experience, we were energized by it. We were witnessing many young leaders who were our age playing important leadership roles in the field (e.g. Mark Zuckerberg). The flourishing of startups seemed promising and cool. Many of us chose to express ourselves, organize ourselves and work with digital tools perhaps also as a means to escape baby boomers’ grasp. Here we could play in a field where they found themselves out of their element, and they could not catch up.

Further than that, Tech conferences and events open up whole imaginaries and worlds of possibilities. I consider Tech as a “discursive space”. What I mean by this is the language and imaginaries opened up by tech visionaries make me see a world full of possibilities and where problems can be fixed. There is a solution to everything! That can-do attitude, the belief that the world is understandable, knowable and can be solved, while much of a fairy-tale, is very motivating for me.

In contrast, I could see that some of these possibilities and spaces were lacking from my experiences in social sciences and in the non-for-profit world (and, in the end, this is what drew me to the world of social innovation, a domain that draws inspiration from both social science and Tech methodologies, among others).

I always use to think (and I still do): Why don’t social scientists or feminists express themselves with the boldness and the future-orientation of technologists? What are the possibilities opened up by taking Tech’s attitude to other domains? After all, neither technologists nor social scientists really know what the future holds, as none of us do. They are all part of creating it. Tech conferences serve as a reminder of the potency of creativity and of our individual and collective agency.


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