Tech experts, policymakers, and entrepreneurs gathered in Riga for the Digital Freedom Festival to discuss the technological upsurge and its role in the future society.
How do we find balance in a life loaded with technologies? What does it mean to be human in the robot era, and what if technologies are actually making us dumber? From November 30th to December 1st, the Digital Freedom Festival gathered entrepreneurs, experts, policy makers and investors from around the world to answer these questions and discuss how the society can benefit from the rapid technological development we're facing today.
The Digital Freedom Festival is an exclusive technology, startup, policy and lifestyle event that discusses the latest trends and discoveries in digital technologies. This year, the festival congregated more than 1500 attendees, including Gabi ZedlMayer, social innovator and the President of the Women's Council at Hypo Vereinsbank Unicredit, Hal Hodson, technology correspondent at The Economist, as well as Liz Wahl, journalist and former anchor for Russia Today, among many others.
For the third year in a row, the Digital Freedom Festival was held in Riga Latvian Society House, making the historic building buzz not only with enthusiasts of the tech and startup world, but also with vibrant art installations, VR exhibitions, and energetic vibes.
This year's theme of the festival was Human & Machine, and the key takeaway after the two-day festival is: adjusting to the fast pace of technological development is a challenge, but our future selves can - and should - learn to benefit from it both professionally, as well as individually.
Technology as a form of power transforming the society
Jamie Susskind, author of Future Politics and a practicing barrister, opened the festival on its main stage - the Future stage, focusing on the transformational force digital technology has on politics, democracy, and society. Susskind emphasized that the modern society is moving towards another major transformation - a “Digital Lifeworld” which is equal to the Industrial Revolution experienced in the turn of the 18th and 19th century. 'Tech will be all around us, and even inside us, increasingly transforming into a form of power. Those who write the code will make the rules,' Susskind pointed out.
Another aspect where technology can play a major role is the change in equality (or rather - inequality) in the modern business world, which is something that Gabi Zedlmeyer emphasized in her presentation “Leadership in Disruptive Times: How to Compete in the Digital World”. Zedlmayer noted that as data is doubling every day, life and work change exponentially and 'business as usual' is dying. Therefore, we need to learn how to adapt to the new situation. Zedlmayer's advice was to focus on building a diverse network of people and shifting from knowing the rules to making them.
Are technologies making us dumber?
On the Delfi Media Lab stage, media representatives, journalists, and tech experts gathered to discuss topics such as the influence of technologies on journalism and human intelligence, as well as the future of advertising and subscription. In a particularly challenging discussion “Dumb and dumber: Technology and us”, the participants debated the trends and consequences of the progressing information consumption and whether humans are getting dumber than goldfish.
During the discussion, Arnis Ritups, publisher and editor of Rigas Laiks, asked the speakers whether humans should feel threatened by robots. Hanan Salam, co-founder and head of education and research at Women in AI, advocated the positive aspects of robotics and AI, emphasizing that people would be left with much more time for creative work and new inventions if we trusted the dull daily tasks to robots. She also noted that humans are driven by happiness and introducing more technologies in our daily lives can help us achieve that.
Hal Hodson added that we're experiencing a grave case of attention span erosion. 'Modern humans extend beyond their body and skin - into their friends and families, as well as their phones,' he noted, emphasizing that technologies have become an integral part of our identities. The conclusion was - instead of banning technologies from our lives, we need to find limits to build a healthy relationship.
The deteriorating human attention span was explored further in other speeches. For example, Hans Luik, supervisory board member at AS Ekspress Grupp, in his presentation “How to build a media empire” emphasized that 'the future belongs to the people who can concentrate.' Meanwhile, Inga Springe, investigative journalist and co-founder of Re:Baltica, explained how this shift in human attention has altered the media landscape, making journalists produce easily-digestible formats like engaging videos instead of long-form articles.
Technologies, design, and the uprising of screens
One of the highlights of the conference was the presentation of Mikael Colville-Andersen, the CEO and founder of Copenhagenize Design Co, who spoke about bicycle urbanism and creating better city environments.
After jokingly thanking the Digital Freedom Festival for the massive hangover, he went on to say that tech will not save the world. Instead, it will be us, humans, who will design cities made for its people: 'The greatest monument in Copenhagen is not the Little Mermaid - it's the infrastructure for bikes, a monument for people of the city of today and tomorrow.'
Colville-Andersen was openly critical about the cycling infrastructure in Riga: 'There are robots and startups, and tech. But then you walk outside and it's the Soviet Union. It's a transport dictatorship. I thought you guys were free?' He revealed that Riga is currently ranked #71 in the Copenhagenize Index that measures bicycle-friendliness in cities around the world. Colville-Andersen did, however, point out that he had spent an hour meeting the mayor of Riga, and with less talk and more work the cycling landscape could be about to change.
The correlation between technological development and design was further explored in the Lifestyle Lounge. Arthur Analts, Latvian designer and the co-founder of Variant Studio, revealed how these two aspects collide in his interactive art installation “Matter to Matter” that won the Best Design Medal in the London Design Biennale. 'Screens are changing our behaviour, and we are becoming addicted,' he said. But the good thing is - we can interact with nature while using technologies and still being a part of the city. 'It used to be the screens that were magic, and nature was just a regular part of life. Now - it's the other way around.'