If there were ever a cliché of a tech conference, Web Summit would fit the bill. A gigantic venue packed full of stages, stands and startups; pitching competitions throughout; dedicated networking spaces; huge queues for coffee; almost no suits…Web Summit is a full-on gathering of the tech industry.
And so when Donald Trump was elected President following day one of the conference, Web Summit attendees joined the echo chamber of the anti-Trump, so-called ‘liberal elite’, not on Twitter or Facebook, but in person, on stage, and into the night at the various meet-ups, parties and late-night chats.
It’s clear from the various analyses, opinion pieces and commentaries which have been published over the last 48 hours that the media and Silicon Valley (along with international equivalents) were taken by surprise by the result.
The vibe in the morning was predominantly one of anger. At times, the IRL echo chamber felt more intense than Twitter, with mentions of calling counsellors, ditching the conference to de-stress, and asking for company for coffee and rants. Every person you met voiced how enraged and confused they were.
At the start of the scheduling, the organiser of the conference, Paddy Cosgrave, had the vast crowd at Centre Stage beam their Smartphone flashes in solidarity and hope. It seemed a bit lofty and naff, but the sentiment was at least positive and empowering; what you might expect from a conference full of entrepreneurs, optimists and ‘change-makers’.
— Gemma Milne (@gkmilne1) November 9, 2016
But later in the proceedings, on the main stage, broadcast live to thousands of people around the globe, Founder of 500 Startups Dave McClure (ironically on a panel about ego), got out of his chair, walked to the front of the giant stage, and yelled out to the audience: “If you’re not pissed right now then what the f**k is wrong with you?”
And the audience cheered, whooped, got out of their seats, and revelled in this outburst, proving that only one thing is clear – we are so unbelievably out of touch.
The idea that Trump has been cultivating a culture of blame throughout the election campaign has been repeatedly voiced by the liberal elite – the very set of people who are in attendance at Web Summit. And yet, when one of our figureheads, one of our success stories, one of our ‘people at the top’ gets up on stage and proclaims that those who were happy with the result (i.e. everyone who voted Trump) have something wrong with them, we applaud.
Something has gone wrong – and it’s at the root of why Trump was elected in the first place. People like Dave McClure, who are not necessarily inherently malicious or wrong or particularly entitled, have a voice that others do not. They are allowed to get up on stage at a 53,000-person conference and say that the type of people who aren’t like them are effectively alien. And they have the power and the wealth and the network to have a life quite different from the majority of Trump voters. And it is exactly this kind of behaviour that caused the anger, frustration and feelings of helplessness at the root of the election result.
As Bradley Tusk, Founder of Tusk Holdings, said during the election-specific panel: America’s standing in the world doesn’t matter to a lot of Americans. Owen Jones of The Guardian rightly pointed out that many of the voters don’t even have access to broadband, never mind Twitter. The bubble, which we in the media, startup-land, and global industry exist in, is far removed from the thoughts, ideas and struggles of ‘ordinary’ Americans. We have absolutely no idea, and we have forgotten to care that we are so very ignorant.
Bishop Paul Tighe, the Culture Secretary of the Vatican, spoke later in the day about the Catholic Church’s digital strategy – but what was so on point with the usual musings from the liberal elite was his idea around what good communication constitutes: listening with the openness and true intention to learn something from the other person, despite their beliefs.
Web Summit, and the many other gatherings of the incredible people who make up the tech industry, should be a place for people to come together to learn and connect, but most importantly, to act. And to act on the issues in the world which are hard and important and real.
If we can learn anything from the last few days, it’s that we still don’t understand the problems millions of people are facing – not just in the US but around the world. But what’s also true is that as an industry, we do have the power and the ability to make change, create better solutions, and disrupt at scale. So we’ve had our rants, we’ve been upset, and at times we’ve been understandably irrational – but now it’s time to get to work.
And we’d better start by listening.