”Europe Must Break Up US Cloud Dominance”

Privacy online, crowd-funding and genetic engineering were the main topics at the fourth annual TedX Brussels which gathered 1500 delegates at the Bozar art centre. Netopia was there.

BRUSSELS Technology, Entertainment and Design are the keywords whose initials form TED, the famous online video talks that some claim have reformed public speaking. Its 15-minute format lends itself to snappy one-liners and well-packaged messages, rather than critique, dialogue and afterthought. The TED online videos are great for sharing, but seeing it live is quite a different experience. Whereas almost all other seminar formats are based on conversation with audience participation, Q&A sessions, panels with opposing views represented and organised networking, TEDx Brussels is a one-way street where speakers are introduced almost like rock stars and audience participation is limited to applause at the end of each 15-minute idea blast. It carries every mark of “televangelism” – the hype, the framing, the enthusiastic speakers, the submissive audience, the gospel of high-technology where no doubt is welcome. It was also incredibly well-organised with lots of volunteers, online services, great coffee plus both fun and beautiful intermission entertainment. The old world charm of the understated aesthetics of the 1920’s BOZAR (Centre of Fine Arts or “beaux-arts”) art centre and concert hall with its dressed up cloakroom attendants and bar men provided an interesting clash with the ubiquitous snappy bright colour logos of various social networks. The “x” in TEDx means its independently organised, in case you were wondering.

The program featured a range of topics from cyber-security, crowd-funding, bio-engineering and smoking(!). Much of it was laden with Silicon Valley buzz-words like democratize, citizen scientists, quantified-self and wearable computers. US west coast culture markers like Burning Man were referenced (“what you create is more important than what you consume”). Some of it was fun, like the €50 000 synthetic burgers and Woody Allen’s letter to the professor that had cloned a mouse (“if I can get some cells from Angelina Jolie, perhaps we can talk”). Some of it was downright evangelical, like Indiegogo’s Slava Rubin who claimed crowd-funding makes it so ”the future of no is yes”. The main take-away was the enthusiasm all speakers shared and their commitment to their topics, that was inspiring.

Cybersecurity in the wake of PRISM

Hidden in all the mumbo-jumbo was a real gem: Cybersecurity expert Mikko Hypponen on privacy and online surveillance.

— The US treats the internet as one of its colonies, he said, pointing to Edward Snowden’s leaks on PRISM, Xkeyscore and the other NSA programs. Hypponen sees that as a problem because all major services are US-based.

— If you ask business leaders in, let’s say Sweden, if they use American cloud services like Salesforce, Gmail, Dropbox or Facebook on a daily basis, the answer is 100%. If you ask American business leaders if they use Swedish cloud services, the answer is 0%.

— We are brutally honest with search engines, Hypponen continued. More honest than with our own families. We give away this information to the US.

The answer is to break up this dominance of US cloud services. Not that each country can provide all sorts of services, but we can each contribute with some piece. “One country only has to make a small wave, together they will make a tide, that will lift all the boats at the same time.” Netopia’s conclusion is that this responsibility falls heavily on Europe, whereas Hypponen himself looks for answers in open source.

DNA ethics

Another thought-worthy ethical conundrum was brought forward by genetic researcher Yves Moreau who explained that when the first human genome was analysed in 1987, the process took thirteen years and cost three billion dollars. Today, it is one week and $3000, 2020 it will be one day and one thousand dollars and then it will be a standard procedure at almost every doctor visit. This raises some important ethical issues, medicine wants access to this information in order to develop the best possible treatments for each patient – science and treatment are the same in this field. Society wants both privacy AND the best treatments. If we imagine a world of government surveillance with access to our genome, that is far worse than anything George Orwell could have thought of. And anonymity is not an option, because through the genome individuals can be easily identified. Moreau’s conclusion is that we need a new social contract and ICT infrastructure that can identify who has had access to what information. He suggested we all think about how we want society to handle this and how we want it. He did not share his own view, however, which Netopia found a little disappointing. But thanks to Mr Moreau for raising the issue.

All in all a day full of learnings and a strong underlying message that technology is our saviour and must not be resisted. This attitude is TED’s biggest problem, it would be much more interesting if it would actively seek different views and perspectives and promote debate.

The smoking? Yes, it was James Monsees who deconstructed smoking to not be about nicotine but about the desire in smoking: the self-image, the relaxation, the social codes. This is the blind spot in all smoking treatments, according to Monsees who also named the cigarette “the most successful consumer product ever”.

Watch the video feed of all the TEDx Brussels speeches on a Youtube channel near you shortly (not available at time of writing).

Per Strömbäck
Editor Netopia