There’s a scene in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves’s Neo first re-enters the world that he used to know. After learning the horrifying truth about his reality, he plugs back in. Everything is the same - but everything is different too.
He glances out of the window, seemingly distant from what he was seeing. “I used to eat there”, he says, remembering how things used to be - and now feeling disconnected from it.
And this is the feeling that I’m experiencing most at Mobile World Congress.
Every year, the trade show descends on the Fira complex in Barcelona: Think London’s Excel Centre or Birmingham’s NEC, but what feels like much larger. The great, the good, and the not so good of the mobile industry put on their best clothes and try to win over the hearts and minds of journalists, investors and “influencers”.
This was my first MWC - but there’s something unreal about the whole experience. Essentially: It is like visiting a world in which Trump never happened.
Dark Days Ahead
The consensus amongst anyone who knows a thing or two about politics is that there are some pretty dark days ahead - not just because of Trump, but because of prevailing global trends. The rise of populist movements in the west, and authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world are providing a challenge to the liberal democratic - some would say the neoliberal - consensus.
Trump himself though is emblematic of this mood. He campaigned on a platform which explicitly challenged the dogma of world trade. Whether he will implement the policies he has threatened remains to be seen (his moves so far have certainly helped Wall Street in the short term), but serious or not he has shattered the long held assumption that globalisation is the only way it can be.
Don’t just take my word for it. Noted academic and political scientist Francis Fukuyama - a man who (seemingly much to his frustration) is best known for claiming that liberal democracy and global capitalism represent the “end of history”, has since clarified his view - and recognises the upset that Trump and his cohort represent. “The dangers of these positions for both the global economy and for the global security system are impossible to overstate”, he wrote in the FT.
That’s how grim things look politically. So why am I surrounded by bright lights, enormous LED screens, booming music and every major corporation pretending that everything is just fine?
Enter The Matrix
To wander through Hall 3 is to see some of the biggest companies in the world conducting business as usual: New phones that are slightly better than last year’s model, laptops that are slightly thinner - and cars that are slightly closer to the goal of autonomy (but still not quite there yet). Nothing seems different - despite the huge challenges that lie ahead. Despite the clouds and the gathering storm. Wi-fi umbrellas will be upended by a whirlwind of hubris if, as many worry, the shit hits the fan.
During all of the major keynotes, no one mentioned how circumstances are changing - but then why would they? What they really wanted to tell us about was how the camera on this one will capture precious memories in slightly more clarity - not how the same cameras could be used for surveillance. They wanted to promise us a bright future where 5G is used to empower us by having our vehicles drive themselves. Not a future where 5G is used to beam live pictures of us back to government databases of political activists. AI will only be used for making more accurate restaurant recommendations - not for parsing social media posts looking for signs of dissent.
Essentially then, I have a question: Why does politics predict a vastly different future to technology? Is the future a utopia, or a dystopia? Surely both can’t be right?
One explanation could be that no one has noticed the profound changes yet. My pet theory is that in the west, we have an “everything will be okay” bias, because we haven’t had a major war for 70 years to remind us both of the value of democracy, and how fragile the world is.
One other explanation could be that yes, the politicos are wrong: that neoliberalism always wins. Sure, Trump appears scary, but history shows that globalisation always finds a way - you only have to look at (say) Argentina or any other country that has attempted to opt-out of the global economic system to see the financial ruin that the world’s markets enacted on them. For 70 years this system has been underpinned by American currency and American power - but perhaps it can survive without it? Perhaps the beast no longer needs its original host?
But perhaps the scarier answer is that there is no conflict: what if both futures can be true? At risk of Godwinning myself, the Nazis’ industrialised killing machine was only possible because of, well, industry. Just as cars and punch-cards technology were used in the 1940s - perhaps the tyrannies of tomorrow won’t require drivers to take people to the death camps and gulags of the future?
Less hysterically, one thing is clear: When it comes to building a database of Muslims, President Trump is going to need the tech industry. When governments expand the surveillance state, they need these massive corporations to provide the server infrastructure and the access to our devices. When the government wants to track its citizens in real time, to protect us from terrorists, it is going to need these corporations to share our data.
After he is shown the real truth, Neo is essentially radicalised and decides to take down the tyranny that is The Matrix. Other characters are less convinced. One, Cypher, decides that he’s much happier living the lie - and is willing to surrender his liberty and his fellow humans for material gain.
Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but it feels like now is not a time for the world’s tech corporations to willfully pretend that everything's still okay. Should it really be business as usual? Perhaps it is time for the world’s tech giants to decide: Are they Neo, or are they Cypher?