Event review: 2970⁰ The Boiling Point: Practising Democracy | The Arts Centre Gold Coast | 7-9 September 2017

2970 degrees is the boiling point of gold; the place where transformation occurs. This alchemy was the basis for the 2970⁰ The Boiling Point: Practising Democracy (2970) event held at The Arts Centre Gold Coast on 7 – 9 September 2017.

Curated by multi-disciplinary creative David Pledger, 2970 brought together over one hundred disrupters, activists and provocateurs, inviting all to take a proactive seat at the roundtable of practising democracy. From school to retirement age, thinkers from all over Australia came together in a spirit of respectful disagreement and roundly debated and voted upon the provocations put forward by the event speakers.

Indigenous educator Kyle Slabb was first off the blocks on Day One, with his presentation cutting to the very foundation of our societal structures: hierarchy. Slabb is the co-founder of Banaam, a professional cultural education and consultancy firm which applies Indigenous principles to the contemporary corporate world. The concepts of “gogawn” (a senior figure) and “banaam” (their support person) underpin all traditional Australian Aboriginal relationships. Unlike the hierarchical model used in modern society, gogawn and banaam are seen as existing on an equal plane. The relationships also shift in accordance to who holds the knowledge, meaning that a person can be a gogawn in one relationship and a banaam in another.

Slabb’s provocation: To remove all hierarchy from society, was a perfect jumping off point for the event, and my personal favourite provocation. Rather than dealing with one particular issue or group of people, it forced all delegates to interrogate their existing understanding of the entire world’s systems, structures, organisations and relationships: no mean feat, and certainly a vigorous warm up. Key respondents Yasmin Khan and Phillip Folent brought their own measured personal experiences and reflections to bear on the process.

As debate opened up it was fascinating to hear the range of voices from the delegates. Dozens of school students from around the coast provided a valuable youth perspective to proceedings. While many valid points were raised both in favour and against Slabb’s proposition, the recurring theme seemed to be that most felt it would be a great system to implement in an ideal world but that it may present many practical barriers when trying to overthrow a current system. Still, the room voted in favour overall. One for the optimists.

Those who don’t know who Van Badham is rarely have to be reminded once they do. Like an unstoppable freight train, the diminutive Guardian columnist and staunch trade unionist took over the stage and charged through her presentation about the critical role that gainful employment plays in self-esteem, human purpose and overall societal benefit. Van Badham was a last minute replacement for original presenter Jamila Rizvi, who unfortunately succumbed to the dreaded flu prior to the event. However you wouldn’t have guessed Badham was talking on the hop, with the ease and conviction on display in her presentation. She took us back to the industrial revolution, days where workers had little to no rights, and forward through history to the establishment of trade unions and the subsequent improvement in working conditions for the average person. She touched quite negatively on the idea of a universal wage, and briefly discussed the connection between work and gender. Question time became mildly heated, with a delegate question around reported union abuse of power being met with a spirited defence and an accusation of ingratitude by Badham. (It should be noted that she said she wouldn’t be so hostile if not being hired to be a provocateur, a valid point and a role she filled admirably.)

Badham’s provocation: That all workers should have the right to exercise industrial power, seemed simple on the surface, with many delegates feeling that a rejection of the proposition would be unsustainable. However, the beauty of a democratic gathering lies in its range of views, and in fact the table count was not unanimously in favour, although the proposal easily passed.

Responses were provided by Leila Gurruwiwi and Mara Bun before the discussion and voting. The concept also opened up much larger conversations around the meaning of life, what the pursuit of happiness actually looks like, and the role of computers and technology in the future working world.

Day Two saw a keynote address by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, one of the world’s leading experts on robots and androids, all the way from Osaka University. Both a controversial and a strangely whimsical figure, Ishiguro took an unexpected path by expounding the belief that a greater understanding of humanity is born from the study of robotics, and androids in particular. Japan is currently one of the world leaders in robotics and artificial intelligence: a fact which most of us should be grateful for, as Japan’s laws to do not permit AI to be employed for the purposes of war or utilised by the military. Instead, in singular Japanese fashion, androids are being used as hotel receptionists, web show hosts and as interactive “pets” in the home. Hiroshi briefly skimmed over some work with robotics in the fields of autism and dementia but without any substantive studies or outcomes it was difficult to perceive the value in this regard. Like any concept still technically in its infancy, the work itself – and subsequently Ishiguro’s presentation – was contained within the abstract, and lacked much in the way of facts and figures to support its conclusions.

Ishiguro’s provocation: That society commits to providing all the resources necessary to achieve consciousness in Artificial Intelligence, seemed to present three major issues to the delegates. The foremost question raised appeared to be the definition of consciousness; what that means in a machine and the implications for the future if it were to happen. Almost all the tables mentioned a fear of AI becoming militarised, and many wondered about the meaning of “all the resources”, and what as aspects of society may suffer as a consequence of supplying those funds.

Nikos Papastergiadis provided an articulate, even-handed and intelligent reply, however Robyn Archer’s response was a highlight of the event. Her eloquence and humour brings interest to any subject, but in this they particularly shone. She raised the general concerns and “ickiness” that many people from Gen X and older can feel when it comes to the world’s rapidly advancing technology, and addressed what I felt to be the elephant in the room which was the gendered nature of robotics studies.

For the pragmatists such as myself, the onus of presenting a coherent argument about the necessity and value of AI consciousness rests entirely with the person asking for billions of dollars, and I felt that argument was not satisfactorily made. Plus hey, robots are creepy aren’t they? It was interesting to note that while our table ended up as an overall “no”, the “for” and “abstain” votes on it all came from students. The overall outcome was the most evenly divided of the day, with the final table – surprisingly – just knocking it into “yes” territory.  A win for the visionaries.

If you ask the question “Who is Julian Assange?” you’ll get a range of different answers depending on who you’re talking to. Cultural icon, criminal, hero, radical, intellectual, victim, coward… the list goes on. Lot of great figures have been polarising, and Assange is unlikely to escape that fate in the annals of history. Speaking to the 2970 delegates via a live link from his five-year long asylum within the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange talked at length about the self-perpetuating acquisition of institutional power: a concept he has not only had a long time upon which to ruminate but one which also informs the objectives of his company WikiLeaks.

As a speaker, he was an inspired choice for an event which focused on rewriting the rules of the world. Regardless of the charges which saw him flee to the embassy in the first place (charges which have now been dropped; had he been a convicted rapist, I am certain the event organisers would not have considered him), it is undeniable that the work which Assange and WikiLeaks do is brave and seeks to hold those in positions of power accountable for their decisions, potentially changing the course of the planet in the process. As someone who seeks out secret truths of the powerful, Assange’s thoughts on the greatest threat to world security was certainly worth hearing. His opinion? Artificial Intelligence.

Putting aside the fact that he was apparently unaware that another speaker at the event was a leader in this particular field, Assange’s argument was simple. When we program computers to think faster, to complete more complicated algorithms and to process volumes of data which so far exceed the capabilities of humans as to be laughable, then how do we monitor, audit and moderate those processes, let alone constrain them if they present a threat? Assange believes that those who hold the keys to AI hold the keys to the planet, and in his opinion, the USA leads in that regard (the Japanese may disagree).

Assange’s provocation: That the world’s computation advancement should stop at the level reached by the US in 2016 received overwhelming support, with only two individual dissenters. As there were no round tables or respondents for the final session we did not get to debate or hear any points of contention on this, however I happened to be sitting next to one of the dissenters (a student), and I asked her why she voted as she did. “I just think there’s a bit of hysteria about this whole AI thing,” she shrugged. “I’d rather let it go and see what can happen with it.” Her response almost perfectly summed up the attitude towards technology demonstrated by the large numbers of millennials present at the event, and as future leaders in our community their voices certainly deserved to be heard and respected. On this particular one though, I’m listening to the guy with the secrets.

From the greatest overarching world philosophies to the minutiae of daily life; the world’s oldest living culture to the foreseeable future of technological advancements, the 2970⁰ Boiling Point: Practising Democracy event had a scope which some may describe as overly ambitious. However the careful curation of speakers, topics and respondents, the superb distillation skills of MC Eleanor Jackson, clever mix of frivolity and effort and – above all – the willingness of all participants to engage, communicate and listen wholeheartedly, combined to create a thoughtful, unique and unforgettable experience for all involved. We very much look forward to the next incarnation, Mr Pledger.

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