We went to #TNWEurope and it was GREAT

Written by
Bogdana Butnar

Last week, our Head of Strategy, Bogdana, snuck off for one day to attend The Next Web conference in Amsterdam and she came back so excited that we had to give her some space to spill her inspiration beans on all the things she's seen and heard. Over to you Bogdana...

“First of all, here’s three simple things I found most useful when navigating a conference populated with with thousands of eager people:

  • Get everywhere 30 mins earlier: if you want a locker, food, tea, a seat and better wifi, you need to get to where you need to be ahead of everyone else.
  • The most hyped talks are usually the less interesting ones: maybe famous people assume their presence will be enough and don’t try that hard. Casey Neistat had a pretty chilled out, emotional look back at his career but I did not learn anything new; although Ethan Zuckerman from MIT Media Labs carried the weight of the MIT brand, his talk on homophily in social networks and how that influences the news we consume was also not something totally new.
  • Do your research on speakers before you attend: I nearly didn't stay for Microsoft’s Bill Buxton (do visit his site for info about his books) and his speech on ubiety and the need to have simple principles of communication between apps blew me away.
  • Always carry two portable chargers. Big ones. If you don't need the capacity yourself they will help you make new 'friends'.

That being said, I have to say #TNWEurope was one of the best organized tech conferences I ever attended with tremendous staffing and incredibly decent wifi, despite the 1.4 terabytes of data downloaded during the first day (WTF??).

Below are my two paragraph recaps of the talks I attended and loved, and some useful links to resources if those topics catch your fancy.

  • Peter Sunde, founder of the Pirate Bay - on the importance of questioning the official narrative and understanding the part we play. I loved Sunde’s irreverent way of admitting that they were better at marketing than at coding during TPB days, but mostly I found it incredibly relevant, in a time when the information we consume becomes so hard to define as objective, to be able to step back and understand that there is an official narrative to almost anything that happens and that it does not have to be the correct one.
  • Bill Buxton, MS principal researcher - on not making more apps but finding ways to ensure that whatever we build communicates with the rest. Bill’s speech was tremendous, and I will only mention his view that humans are ambient and our current tech environment resembles a cul-de-sac where all parts are contained and there is no intra-communication, thus making the experience broken and the parts under-leveraged. His three simple rules for building something meaningful are below:

Every new product and service must provide great experience and excellent value; they must work, flow and generate demand.
Every new product must work seamlessly with all others in the ecosystem of the customer.
Each must also reduce the complexity and increase the value of each other.

  • Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon spoke in very simple and direct terms about AI and machine learning. His conviction is that AI is not scary because it is the result of basic machine learning: looking at past data to make predictions about the future using algorithms. Machine learning is something that informs all interactions at Amazon. It was amazing to find out that there is an algorithm that predicts abusive feedback and fraudulent reviews. He also mentioned some quintessential books for the ML aficionado: Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice and Renata Salecl’s Tyranny of Choice.
  • John Underkoffler, CEO of Oblong, the company that made the interfaces we see in Mission Impossible. I have to say, this talk blew me away. I came out of listening to John Underkoffler  with a new level of inspiration for what UI means. His speech was eerily connected to Bill Buxton’s in that they both spoke about an uninterrupted experience of technology for the individual. While Bill’s thesis was more around making technology more communicating, Underkoffler was all about incorporating more humanity in the way we build interfaces. He said this amazing thing about privileging the hand and how teaching gestures to interfaces could render causality visible which is essential for our brains to operate at their best which I want tattooed on my shoulder, I think. Both Bill and John had a similar view, that the best computer in the world is still the human brain and we need to give it ways to do its job in a more seamless manner through interconnected apps and meaningful UI.
  • David Allen, the Getting Things Done author - turned out to be a bit grumpier than I had expected and also a resident of Amsterdam. Go figure! His speech came as almost a rounding off of all I had learned so far. He focused on demonstrating what a GTD app would look like - while also underlining that none of the almost 800 start-ups that had approached him about building one had ever done a good enough job :). His point was that the brain needs to be given the right tools to be able to focus on doing the complicated tasks it is built to do. Lists and immersive ways to ideate and then prioritize were Allen’s simple solutions to this. I also loved his view that “If you try to prioritise before you allow yourself to express and think, you will lose millions of ideas”.

I also enjoyed listening, as mentioned, to Casey Neistat, speaking about how we started making videos and how we understands his role as an influencer (a term he, BTW, says he hates), Ethan Zuckerman from MIT Media Labs about how social networks constrict our view of the world and Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp.

For me, this conference was all about deepening our relationship with the technology we have so that we can provide a more meaningful experience for everyone, but at the same time being aware of the responsibility that comes with successful technologies. We're as excited as ever about all these new technologies, but we're also all growing up and view them with a more rounded perspsctive”