This weekend I gave a talk at the rather fascinating Doomconf conference, quite unlike any I’ve spoken at before. The experience has inspired me to change approach with this column, the reasons for which I’ll attempt to explain below.
But to summarise the proposed change in approach, I’ve decided no longer to censor myself from saying things in this column that might upset investors and employees – that might make me look moronic or incompetent or that admit vulnerability or mistakes.
I’ll come back to these points below, but first I should explain the conference and why I think such an absence of self-censorship to be the right path forward.
The conference in question is called Doomconf, and is the brain child of Fabian Stelzer, the CEO of a machine intelligence startup called Eyequant based in Berlin. He is a person who in another life would be writing comedic analyses of the decadence of contemporary society.
Now, the conference was somewhat tongue-in-cheek – the taglines were “even worse than 2016” and “the anti-Ted”. And everything about the event poked fun at the saccharine positivity and intellectual superficiality of the Ted format. The speeches were given from behind the (superb) bar of a hip wine joint called Faciolla in Kreuzberg, Berlin.
And even though there was nothing especially serious about how the event conceived of itself, it was, paradoxically, the most serious conference I’ve ever attended.
The calibre of the speakers was superb, as was the audience. But that’s true of some other conferences, too. What made the conference so unique was its theme of doom: everyone I spoke to avowed, as do I, that they’d learned more, and heard more true things than at any conference they’d ever previously attended.
What were the Doomconf talks about? Well, there was a decisive scientific demolition of the concept of “neural plasticity” in adults and a frightening exploration both of the banality and dangers of future AI. Then an author read a piece of her short fiction that explored the blindness and degradation of tech workers, and all of us, in the context of contemporary technology and associated propaganda while there was a deep-dive into the intractability of middle-Eastern political conflict. This taught me more Middle Eastern history than I’ve absorbed in hundreds of hours of hearing about it on the news. Finally, one bold speaker even explained some of the broken elements within the sexual experience of the contemporary male.
Doomconf sounds mightily depressing, and it was. But it was nonetheless joyful, because everyone could feel the clouds of bullshit clearing away from lots of familiar topics. Rather than undiluted dishonest positivity, we had people saying things as they are.
I suppose the simple insight here is that – from first principles of balance – about half of what there is to be said should highlight negative elements of the world. Good companies, and psychologically healthy individuals, aren’t afraid internally to confront the negative and talk openly about it. But in public talk, people and companies are incentivised to promote themselves, to present an undiluted positive face, and (where problems are acknowledged) to attest to having solutions rather than admit, for instance, that they have no idea, that they’re dead scared, or that they are somehow lacking or criminal.
To put this all in the simplest possible way, what Doomconf made clear to me (embarrassing, I must admit, the extent to which this truth has so far eluded me in life, but hey!) is that the vast majority of things that people say in public are corrupted. Not necessarily untrue, but corrupted by the raw fact of the bias of selection of only saying things that are broadly positive and protect or enhance the self and social connections. I’d never quite been conscious of the extent to which this bullshit-vector seeps into every corner of our culture.
Doomconf created a safe social space for discussion of the things that aren’t good, the things we don’t know, the problems we’re not about to solve. It was able to create a public forum for the many things we are emotionally invested into believing to be good (like democracy, western values, technology, ourselves, etc) that are actually broken and without obvious remedy. In a nutshell, it was unafraid to be truthful. And the experience of the audience was that it was therefore much more interesting – and positively energetic.
So, returning to this column, and what Doomconf has inspired in it, I’ve decided henceforth I’m going to aim to speak mainly about what’s going wrong in the company or myself. That’s the interesting stuff, and probably the stuff that’s most likely to be useful for other people to read. The kind of stuff if which there are almost no examples on, say, Medium.
I’ll begin this series of (cheerfully) doom-laden posts next instalment with an account of how the process of attempting to set annual goals for the company seemed to me at one point this last month to be such a fiendish and insoluble puzzle that I seriously doubted my ability to continue to lead the company, and went into a reverberating state of mental confusion from which it was very unclear to me for a week or two whether I was going to emerge in one piece.