“AI-nxiety,” the Post-Pandemic Reset and Big Tech in Flux: What You Need to Know From DLD Munich

Perspectives Header DLD 2 6 23 3
  • Text Eli Williams
  • Design Emily Zhang

A few weeks ago, a few members of the Day One team flew to Munich to attend the DLD Conference. Founded in 2005, when ChatGPT was just a twinkle in the eye of founder Sam Altman and the iPhone was nothing more than an idea that horrified Regis Philbin, DLD (short for “Digital-Life-Design”) bills itself as a forum meant to connect “people eager to change the world in the digital era.” It hosts a diverse array of both renowned and yet-to-be-established speakers with varied backgrounds across business, tech, media, art and design. Previous speakers have included heavy hitters like Mark Zuckerberg, Tony Fadell (the mind behind the iPod), Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft), Lady Gaga (needs no introduction), Jack Dorsey (former “Chief Twit”), Ai Weiwei (your favorite artist’s favorite artist) and more.

It was a fairly short conference by most industry standards (just two days), which meant that our schedules were packed with over 20 to 30 semi-strictly enforced 15-25 minute keynote addresses, a live band, one very loud drone (to capture content), several muted responses to jokes about Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover and, thankfully, enough small bites to keep you alive and kicking for the day.

If your goal, like mine, is to try to be the dumbest in the room, this conference delivered. We learned about the “unbearable slowness of being” (feeling like we’re in a liminal space), autonomous flying vehicles, the psychology of big wave surfing, “How DNA Origami Disrupts Medicine and Becomes the New Cornerstone of Nano Robotics” and—woof—interspecies communication. And that was all before the coffee was served.

Flipping through my barely legible handwriting on the flight back, a pattern started to emerge among the conference's key themes: the growing prominence of generative AI (and the ensuing “AI-nxiety,” as we’re calling it), tech’s midlife crisis and the post-Covid expectations reset. Here’s what you need to know for each.

Bubble Burst

The Take: We’re emerging from a variety of post-Peloton pandemic bubbles: a rapid reckoning with Covid-era expectations about where consumer interest and spend lies.

Journalist and author of the Substack The Rebooting, Brian Morrissey, kicked off the conference with a discussion around resetting expectations in the post-Covid, post-zero interest rate landscape. The story goes a little something like this: when the pandemic started, companies (mostly in the tech sector) staked big bets on the idea that pandemic behaviors—the shift to remote work, digital workouts, e-commerce, online grocery shopping, streaming and virtual events—would outlast any lockdown measures or vaccination campaigns. He called this the “digitization leapfrog.” It’s a sentiment also echoed by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who, in a recent article about the tech sector’s layoffs, wrote, “...in 2020, [tech companies] thought the pandemic economy was a time machine, and in 2022, they realized the pandemic economy was an oasis.” So where do we go from here? 2023 will be a “year of hangovers,” where tech companies will be forced to white knuckle an ice-blue energy drink as they sweat out their pandemic highs and reckon with the end of “magical thinking” that saw their valuations and influence extend far beyond their true worth.

AI Is Here. What’s Next Is…TBD

The Take: ChatGPT doesn’t have “a prefrontal cortex” or “an inside voice.”

“AI-nxiety,” the word we coined in our 2023 Predictionary to describe unease about the ramifications of AI on human creativity and ingenuity, was palpable. On stage and on the sidelines, it was hard to escape any discussion around the latest crop of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, DALL-E and Midjourney (thankfully nothing about “smooth talker,” an AI generator for pickup lines). We heard talks titled “Generative AI: Opportunities for the New Age of AI,” followed by “Challenges of Generative AI,” and “Ethical AI?!” Journalists and founders sparred over the ethical, philosophical, economic and cultural implications of the technology, but few projected deluded techno optimism or myopic skepticism. Most of the group focused on the rise of the “Human Premium,” the idea that as synthetic media rises, the human voice, and community, will feel more important. Rather than fully replace humans, the consensus (for now) is that AI will just be a new addition to our creative arsenal, helping us to better harness our knowledge and capabilities rather than replace it.

Big Tech in Flux

The Take: Dominant platforms are facing more regulation, consumer fatigue and competition from nascent platforms and technology.

The major players in tech—from Google to Amazon—are facing major headwinds from lawmakers in Europe and the U.S., not to mention a growing number of competitors vying for consumers’ attention. Google, for instance, is coming up against both regulatory pressure and a slew of competition from TikTok and AI upstarts that threaten both its search and ad model. On the other hand, many speakers voiced concern about TikTok’s direct ties to the Chinese government, and had a tangible appetite to regulate (if not outright ban) the app. Timely, considering that the company is hiring an army of lobbyists in Washington, and its CEO is set to testify in front of Congress imminently. Europe is home to far stricter regulations than the States thanks to stringent privacy and antitrust laws, but regulating tech is one area in which there’s growing bipartisan consensus in the U.S., with 2023 set to be a year of reckoning for big players.

The Final Take?

To be fair, I wouldn’t blame you if you scoffed at a conference whose Silicon Valley-esque mission is to connect “people eager to change the world in the digital era.” But I can’t think of a year, perhaps other than 2007, with the launch of the iPhone, where that sentiment felt so accurate and tangible. It feels like we’re on the cusp of transformative change—and those in the room were adamant about ensuring their involvement in writing its future.

After the conference concluded, my colleague, Senior Creative Strategist Clara Malley, and I came up with the word “Precalibrating,” which ended up being the central focus of our 2023 Predictionary. Its aim is to describe how this year will be one to put 2022’s hard-won lessons into action through creative solutions: a reminder of our own agency in defining and inventing the future. It’s a fitting mantra to close out the article. We have not only the time, but the power to anticipate change, rather than simply react to it. We can empower ourselves to build a firewall or a creative framework to navigate the year (and years ahead). This year truly feels like one where the sands are shifting, and DLD helped to illuminate the path ahead. Whether it’s quicksand, or the formation of a solid foundation for the future, is ours to say.