Thinking Digital: back to the future

Back in the mid 1990s I used to go to an all night (weekend?) party called Coalesce. There were lots of nice people and loads of deeply meaningful conversations. And ridiculous ones. About life, the universe and everything. There was probably a bit of chemical enhancement going on. Twenty years on, tech entrepreneur turned curator Herb Kim has done something quite amazing. He’s channelled that essence of nineties rave into a conference.

Thinking Digital is a heady mix of music, lights, optimism, existential conversations and meaningful coincidences. A homespun feast of analogue humanity meets digital possibility. The conference is now in its eighth year and it’s a celebration of the polymath. The speakers are all great connectors – communicators who can explain quantum physics or data visualisation with ease. They entertain with complexity.

You don’t have to be clever, you just have to be up for it.

There is music, live coding (see Sam Aaron, above), creativity, comedy and science. And stories. All the speakers have a personal story to tell – a journey they’ve been on. The conference is well designed, well organised, generous (nice food, nice space, bean bags, social stuff) and, above all, brilliantly curated. Herb Kim presides above it all with typical geek informality and humility. He should be beaming with pride – he’s drawn all these people together, thrown them into a mix that looks eclectic on paper but somehow makes complete sense in delivery.

We need new answers for the world, and somehow you leave Gateshead feeling they might just have been thrown up here – or at least the start of some solution. Here’s just a selection of the inspirational things I heard (and talked about long afterwards):

1. Luciano Floridi: it’s up to us to make the future we want. And we must think very carefully who we’re making it FOR.
2. Russell Davies: It’s not the strategy that’s hard, it’s the execution. Don’t let the strategists forget that!
3. Ian Wharton: think of the most ridiculous thing you can – and do it. (Where’s my owl?)
4. Jennifer Morone: We’re all data slaves. We’re better off as corporations than individuals…so, who are we really building things for?
5. Tim Leberecht: We need a new romantic movement – this time led by business people. We can be the new meaning makers, the new romantic poets of our time.
6. LJ Rich: Always let go of your idea before it’s perfect.
7. Tom Scott: Soon, when 10,000 people watch news events at once via live video stream, THEN the world will change.

Wow. What messages! Well done Herb. I’ll be back for another fix next year. Btw, this event is by no means exclusively digital – there’s also a very nice homespun analogue-y feel about it – like Mad Max putting together a kind of techno-airship in the desert…

But don’t take my word for it – let me know what you think. You can catch up with all the sessions from Thinking Digital 2015 on the recorded livestream.

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