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Ninth Cambridge Festival of Ideas kicks off

Is digital media making us stupid? What is the future of our libraries? Is smartphone fiction the future of reading?

Questions about how technology is shaping our culture and identity are at the forefront of this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which starts today.

The Festival covers a huge range of some of the biggest social, political and cultural issues of our time, from our digital future to human trafficking, Europe, religion and nationalism and academic freedom. Now in its ninth year, the two-week long Festival is teeming with over 200 events, from films and plays to exhibitions to talks, most of them free.  

It features a number of leading thinkers and innovators, including Fiona Hill, Joint Downing Street Chief of Staff, lead author of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and author of A Modern Response to Modern Slavery Report; Professor of International History David Reynolds; Developer and Founder of Skype, and co-founder of The Future of Life Institute and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, Jaan Tallin; Europol Director Rob Wainwright; Director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime Tuesday Reitano; Director of the UK Intersex Association Dr Jay Hayes-Light; and award-winning Guardian correspondent Luke Harding.

On 20th October Roberto Simanowski, professor of digital media studies and digital humanities at City University of Hong Kong, will give the annual Schroder lecture, titled Faust on Facebook, or how we lose track of everything by recording it all. It is based on two books - one,  Facebook Society, just published, and the other, Idiosyncratic Theory: The Alternative ABC of New Media,  forthcoming. Both explore the cultural implications of technological developments.

In Facebook Society, Professor Simanowski argues that the kind of sharing of personal information is not a manifestation of narcissism, but a flight from solitude and from society: the smartphone our umbilical cord and protective shield. Professor Simanowski questions what this sharing is doing to our notions of society and identity.  He says the so-called digital nation’s only shared value is the desire and experience of sharing and that social networking provides “autobiographies” whose actual narrators are the network and the algorithm.  Constant sharing of information and personal updates, he says, is evidence of a “posthuman” world of shared being and he questions what the wider cultural impact of that might be - how a community of shared being and no deep reflection, a community that lives in the present in thrall to the next update, can prepare individuals for moments of disagreement.

In Idiosyncratic Theory, Professor Simanowski explores questions such as whether a “no photography” day on social networks foster self-­understanding; how nerds became the new cool; would Faust, who bet with the devil never to plead with the passing moment, be on Facebook; whether the trade of words for images make us stupid; and whether Mark Zuckerberg is inadvertently rescuing the project of modernity through the promotion of small talk.

Other events include:

  • Re/Collections: Libraries in the 21st century  - a panel of experts will debate the changing role of libraries [26th October]. The event is part of the celebrations for the 600th anniversary of Cambridge University Library. Author Ali Smith will kick off the debate by presenting a newly commissioned piece written especially for the event.
  • Smartfiction: Literature On Your Phone - award-winning author Kate Pullinger will talk about writing for the smartphone. She is currently working on a serialised multimedia novel for smartphones.[28th October].
  • Should women breastfeed each other's babies? - a panel including historians, a sociologist and a neonatal expert will look at historic precedents as well as health and practical considerations today and ask whether we can learn something from the past about infant feeding. [26th October]
  • Human trafficking: transnational partnerships Experts from across Europe will debate how countries can work together to stem the trafficking of human beings across the continent in this high-profile panel discussion. With Director of Europol Rob Wainwright; Andrew Boff, author of Shadow City – Exposing Human Trafficking in Everyday London; Philip Ishola, Former Director of the Counter Human Trafficking Bureau; and Fiona Hill, Joint Downing Street Chief of Staff, lead author of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and author of A Modern Response to Modern Slavery Report. [22nd October]
  • Universities and free speech [21st October] According to recent research about 80% of universities have restrictions on free speech. What does free speech imply in the context of a University? Is it all about academic freedom or might it have something to do with protecting the status quo? Speakers include writer and academic Malachi McIntosh, writer and academic Joanna Williams, Professor Steve Fuller and Priscilla Mensah, President of the Cambridge Students’ Union.  

The Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, RAND Europe, Microsoft Research, Cambridge Assessment, University of Cambridge Language Centre, Arts Council England, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Cambridge Junction, Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the Festival media partner is BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.