Tools for systemic survival: NEXT22 in retrospect

We live in the after times: after the pandemic, post-energy security and amongst war in Europe. We need new paths out of these crises, and NEXT22 speakers showed the way.

There are days when I miss going to digital conferences, and coming back full of unalloyed joy of the sheer potential of the future. Le Web 2006? Everything’s great! NEXT22? Well, not so much… The conference that encouraged us to hug the system also made it clear just how many deep — and dangerous — systemic crises we are facing.

It was my first time back in Hamburg since 2019, having attended NEXT21 remotely due to the limited numbers allowed physically in the room. And our panel of speakers made it obvious that the world has changed in those three years. We’ve always approached the future with more caution than many, as the topics passim like Here Be Dragons and Digital Fix made clear, but this year was a step beyond them.

Transformation had occurred in these three years, and not for the better. There’s war in Europe, and supply chains have snapped and broken, as we enter an age of energy insecurity. This is a very long way from “look at this cool new app!”

Broken systems need a hug

In a way, it was a satisfying sense of coming full circle. The last talk I saw back in 2018 was about the difficult systemic problems we face. 2019 picked up that thread, but its importance has only grown. This year was all about the rest of the world coming to terms with the profound, difficult, and important truth: we live in complex systems and over-simplifying them is just hiding from the complexity. And that leads to bad things.

My colleague Martin latched onto the quote from Richard Barrons, a former UK military leader and now co-chairman of Universal Defence and Security Solutions: “We’re in the deepest of shit.” And yes, we are.

It’s hard to get excited about energy-hungry crypto work when we’re worrying if Germany can heat homes all winter. As inflation and fuel bills spike, people are already cutting back on the subscriptions that were the future of commerce.

This is not normal – at least not the pre-pandemic normal. And NEXT22 emphasised that that isn’t coming back.

Strategies for systemic survival

I wouldn’t want you to come away with the idea that the conference was a bleak one, though. There were plenty of sign-posts towards the next steps, our way through these dark and complex woods.

David Mattin led the way, with some challenging insights into how our very thinking is no longer fit for purpose. The old split between conservatives and progressives is meaningless in the current era. We need to reconceptualise how we discuss politics, dividing the discussion between those who believe in transcendence and those who believe in collapse. I think it would be fair to call NEXT22 a transcendent conference: we acknowledged the problems, and sought solutions to transcend them.

Just as the dialogue between progressivism and conservative strove to improve the human state of being, without losing the best of what went before, the dialogue between collapsers and transcendents will help shape the next century of political action. We need to be realistic about both the costs of action and inaction, but we also must strive realistically to make the world better, without accidentally making it worse as we go.

This is no more or less complex than the old political dialogue; it’s just more challenging because it’s new.

Design defensively

But how does this work in practice? Well, in times of political instability, we all need to pay attention to creating security. As Jessica Berlin’s tight but compelling talk put it:

If you work in digital, your company’s security is your nation’s security.

We can’t just focus on the positive aspects of the systems we’re creating. We also need to design our systems defensively, and think about the harm they could enable, as well as the good. Not only that, but we can no longer afford to indulge in the starry-eyed digital idealism of the mid-2000s, and take a more pragmatic approach to what we build.

As Berlin explained, there’s part of her that is glad that we have been shaken out of our digital complacency, with a sobering reminder of global insecurity:

“We have enabled rich and murderous regimes. We have made choices that have enabled climate change. Likewise, we have made choices that have enabled this global crisis.”

It’s arguable that social media toxicity is the direct consequence of the platform’s founders being privileged enough that the potential harm their tools could do never occurred to them. The systems they build enable toxicity, rather than minimising it. Let’s not make that mistake again.

Find the middle path

Francesca Bria’s talk was another clear signpost: find a middle path between the controlling hand of big state and the rapacious monopolies of big tech. We need, as she argues:

“…a new regulatory approach for the digital age, that avoids creating monopolies, but still encourages innovation. It means a new social contract for the digital age, which involves digital sovereignty, and allows us to set the direction we want technology to go.”

Again, this is a dialogue between the transcendents — tech’s ability to lift us above where we are now — and the collapsers, who see the problems and risks inherent in the technology. Explore the possibilities, while mitigating and controlling the risks, through a mix of regulations and social disapproval.

It’s a hard but necessary path — and one she’s already exploring in those most complex of human-created systems, cities.

Embrace systemic complexity to find simplicity

While some sign-posts were big and obvious, some were much smaller and more subtle. Buried in the heart of Nick Law’s talk was a deceptively simple idea that is quite profound in its implications:

You have to pass through the complexity to get to the simplicity, rather than getting trapped there.

There are two points of danger:

  • Shallow simplicity, exposing a lack of knowledge of the underlying complexities
  • Unnecessary complexities, exposing greater knowledge, but a lack of true understanding

Arguably, most of the social platforms we know today started with the first: simple platforms, with no acknowledgement of the complexities of human interaction. As they accrete functionality, and controls to try to address the negative aspects of human relationships, they end up as the second: unwieldy, confusing products. Look at the current state of Instagram, for example.

Hug the system: and then enhance it

And so, a direction of travel starts to emerge, a possible exit route from the manifold crises that engulf us. Design with both hope and fear: you aim to improve things, and to minimise harms. That means looking at the problem in all its complexity, working to truly understand it, and then working out what’s necessary for both utility and security, and what can safely sacrifice for usability.

That’s true of products — but also true of organisations and legislation, and even whole societies.

To return to David Mattin’s talk, he pointed out that one of the reasons the old political binary makes no sense is that traditional conservatism is no longer an option. Not changing things is a recipe for massive disruptions, just because the political, economic and climate forces are already in motion. Inaction is merely a choice, one in favour of uncontrolled disruption.

If we want a better future — and to escape the deepest of shit — then we need to hug the complexity, and build something beautifully simple out of our profound knowledge of it.

Happily, many of our speakers outlined the building blocks we could use in that process — but that’s fodder for another post.