Re:pub­lica Dublin keeps fo­cus on technology and so­ci­ety

Spin-off of an­nual Ber­lin fes­ti­val stays eclec­tic as it lands in Light House cinema

The Irish Times - Business - - BUSINESS TECHNOLOGY - Kar­lin Lilling­ton

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.

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.

Psychedelics

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.

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.

Costs

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.

On the sec­ond day, Shane P McNamee looked at how cy­borgs – which he de­fines as the “biome­chan­i­cal aug­men­ta­tion of hu­man bod­ies” – might af­fect 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.

Chal­lenged au­di­ence

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.”

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 (re-pub­lica.com).

Dublin is a much more in­ti­mate en­vi­ron­ment than Ber­lin, with a bet­ter op­por­tu­nity to meet and net­work

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.

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