In the pantheon of technological luminaries gracing the stages of this year's Web Summit, imparting wisdom and insight about the wide-ranging role of tech in society, the name Rio Ferdinand rather stuck out. For all his talents, the former England and Manchester United defender is not exactly renowned as a tech visionary.
But as it happened, the timing of his appearance yesterday couldn’t have been more fitting – he began his appearance on the sports stage in a crammed Spiegeltent by announcing he wouldn’t be appealing a three-game ban and £25,000 (€32,000) fine he was recently landed with.
What sort of crime could have resulted in such stringent punishment? A malicious tackle or a cynical professional foul?
Well, no – he directed a profane jibe at a heckling follower on Twitter.
If anything illustrates the far-reaching impact of modern technology, surely it is this little vignette. “The reason I’m on social media is to engage with fans,” Ferdinand said. “People have a perception of who you are through the image that’s painted of you through the media . . . so Twitter allows me to present a real version of myself.”
The version he presented with that tweet was intemperate and rude, but yesterday at the Web Summit he revealed himself to be a sharp, self-aware and surprisingly funny character.
(Ferdinand (right) also revealed his first impression of Roy Keane on joining Manchester United was, "This guy is nuts, how am I going to deal with him on a daily basis?" He warmed to him eventually.)
But the Twitter ban episode highlights the degree to which our lives are now mediated by technology in unpredictable ways. Among the many media-themed panels and discussions held on the various stages, one of the most illuminating saw Mark Little of Storyful talk with some industry peers about the role of social media in news reporting.
“There has never been a better way to spread a hoax than social media,” Little said. “But there has also never been a better fact-checking process than social media . . .”
Social media has changed the terrain of news reporting utterly.
These disparate examples of the effect of technology justify Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave’s decree that the theme of this year’s conference was the “internet of everything”, reflecting how tech touches all industries.
That statement played on the notion of the “internet of things”, the trend for internet-connected devices and appliances and even cars that can “learn” efficient behaviour through smart algorithms.
It's a Jetsons-style future, basically, and the man doing the most to make that sci-fi future a reality is Tony Fadell, the founder of smart devices company Nest, which was bought by Google in January for more than $3 billion (€2.6 billion).
Fadell is an energetic character by nature, animated when talking about developing the iPod at Apple, and he brimmed with excitement when, during an interview on the vast centre stage, he announced that Electric
was going to offer the Nest thermostat to customers with a two-year contract.
Whatever about creating a magical future, Fadell pulled off the not-inconsiderable trick of getting a huge crowd to deliver a big round of applause by talking about thermostats. Perhaps that enthusiasm was a reflection of the core demographic of the Web Summit crowd. For all the star athletes, glamorous TV stars and tall models on the speakers’ line-up, most of the attendees are technologists of one stripe or another.
This was nowhere more in evidence than in the long lines patiently waiting to get into the Machine Stage, which featured a series of talks on the internet of things, the smart home and wearable technology.
If you thought a smart thermostat was esoteric, the marquee was packed to hear an entire chat about a smart lightbulb. But to put the bulb in perspective, we were informed that the Lifx bulb has more computational power than the first Apple Mac, drawing a murmur of approval from the crowd.
After all, everyone knows the impact the Mac had.