Our dining group at Soho’s Little Italy restaurant had been pleasantly surprised by the unannounced entrance of a lady magician, before the orders for coffee were taken. Where were we from, she asked. Answers followed, hesitatingly: Belgium, Germany, Sweden, New York, London…
The atmosphere changed from guarded politeness to unguarded amazement as the magician blazed her way through some fast-paced sleight of hand with newspapers, water, money, ribbons, and playing cards. Many of our group of hardened rationalists and technophiles were gasping with astonishment. How did she do that?
It was a fitting end to a day that had seen a fair share of other kinds of magic.
Despite my nervous forebodings from earlier in the week, the Humanity+ UK2010 event had seen a 100% turn out of speakers, ran (near enough) to time, and covered a vast range of intriguing ideas about forthcoming new technology and the enhancement of humanity. An audience of approaching 200 people in London’s Conway Hall seemed to find much to think about, from what they’d heard. Here’s a brief sample of online feedback so far:
Awesome conference – all your work paid off and then some!
Great conference today #hplusuk : thank you!
Enjoyed H+ event, esp @anderssandberg preso. Learnt about singularity, AI+, wireheads, future shock, SENS, protocells & more
Most enjoyable conference today. Thanks to the organisers and speakers
A few hours literally day dreaming, blown away by human cleverness. These people should be allowed to talk on prime time on BBC regularly
Humanity+ today was terrific. I particulary enjoyed the talks from Amon Twyman – Expanding perception and transhumanist art, Natasha Vita-More – DIY Enhancement, Aubrey de Grey’s Life Expansion and Rachel Armstrong’s Living Technology
Love David Pearce, a true visionary! #hplusuk
Behind the scenes, a team of volunteers were ensuring that things ran as smoothly as possible – with a very early start in the morning following a late evening the previous day. In my professional life over the years I’ve often been responsible for major events, such as the Symbian developer events and smartphone shows, where I had visibility of the amount of work required to make an event a success. But in all these cases, I had a team of events managers working for me – including first-class professionals such as Amy Graller, Jo Butler, Liza Fox, and Alice Kenny, as well as brand managers, PR managers, and so on. These teams shielded me from a great deal of the underlying drama of managing events. In contrast, this time, our entire team were volunteers, and there was no alternative to getting our own hands dirty! Huge amounts of thanks are due to everyone involved in pulling off this piece of magic.
Needless to say, some things fell short of perfection. I heard mild-mannered grumbles:
- That there wasn’t enough time for audience Q&A – and that too many of the questions that were raised from the floor were imprecise or unfocused;
- That the audio from our experimental live streaming from the event was too choppy – due to shortcomings in the Internet connectivity from the event (something that will need to be fixed before I consider holding another similar event there);
- That some of the presentations had parts that were too academic for some members of the audience, or assumed more background knowledge than people actually possessed;
- That there should have been more journalists present, hearing material that deserves wide coverage.
The mail list used by the Humanity+ UK organising team is already reflecting on “what went well” and “what could be improved”. Provisionally, we have in mind a follow-up event early next year. We’re open for suggestions! What scale should we have in mind? What key objectives?
Because I was rushing around on the day, trying to ensure everything was ready for the next phase of the event, I found myself unable to concentrate for long on the presentations themselves. (I’ll need to watch the videos of the talks, once they’re available.) However, a few items successfully penetrated my mental fog. I was particularly struck by descriptions of potential engineering breakthroughs:
- Listed by Aubrey de Grey in the second half of his talk, “Human regenerative engineering – theory and practice“: Aubrey included several pages of news clippings about various new medical treatments or hypotheses, with potential significant implications for anti-aging treatment;
- Covered by Rachel Armstong, in her film and talk about protocells having some features of living cells: “The impact of living technology on the future of humanity“.
This kind of information appeals to the engineer in me. It’s akin to “practical magic”.
I was also struck by discussions of flawed societal priorities, covering instances where publications give undue prominence to matters of low importance, to the exclusion of more accurate coverage of technological issues. For example, Nick Bostrom reported, during his talk “Reducing Existential Risks” that there are more scholarly papers on dung beetle reproduction than on the possibilities of human extinction. And Aubrey de Grey gave examples of sensationalist headlines even in a normally responsible newspaper, for anti-aging news of little intrinsic value, whilst genuinely promising news receives scant coverage.
What is the solution to this kind of broken prioritisation? The discussion among the final speaker panel of the day helped to distill an answer. The Humanity+ organisation, along with those who support its aims, need to become better at the discipline of marketing. Once we convey our essential messages more effectively, society as a whole should hear and understand what we are saying, and respond positively. There’s a great art – and great skill – to the practice of communication.
Some people dislike the term “marketing”, as if it’s a swear word. But I see it as follows. In general terms, “marketing” for any organisation means:
- Deciding on a strategic focus – as opposed to a scattergun approach;
- Understanding how various news items or other pieces of information or activism might be received by people in the wider community;
- Finding better ways to convey the chosen key messages;
- Engaging within the wider community – listening more than talking – and learning in the light of that conversation;
- Repeating the above steps, with increasingly better understanding and better execution.
At 5pm, we had to hurriedly leave the venue, because it was needed for another function starting at 6pm. It was hard to move everyone outside the main hall, since there were so many intense group discussions happening. Eventually, some of us started on a 20 minute walk through central London, from Holborn to Soho, for the post-event dinner at Little Italy. The food was delicious, the waitresses coped well (and with many friendly smiles) with all our many requests, and the conversation was first class. The magician provided a great interlude. I left the restaurant, several hours later, with a growing list of suggestions for topics for talks in the normal UKH+ monthly meetings that could bring in a good audience. Happily, I also have a growing list of names of people who want to provide more active assistance in building an enhanced community of supporters of the aims of Humanity+.