Detroit is the perfect host for re:publica, Europe's largest annual internet conference

Sep 25, 2019 at 1:00 am
Detroit artist Tiff Massey is one of the panelists slated to speak at this year’s re:publica conference in Detroit.
Detroit artist Tiff Massey is one of the panelists slated to speak at this year’s re:publica conference in Detroit. Jan Zappner

Andreas Gebhard founded the Berlin-based re:publica, billed as Europe's largest annual "digital society conference," in 2007 — the year the iPhone came out and the way people experienced the internet had drastically shifted.

"It was a [pivotal] year," he says. "It was a good time for a discussion about all the changes we have in the digital age."

The event was an immediate success. "We thought that would be maybe a small gathering, but more than 700 people showed up and it was really huge," he says. "After a few minutes of starting the event, everybody said we should do it again."

The conference will make its first appearance in Detroit on Friday and Saturday at the Tangent Gallery and Hastings Street Ballroom. Dubbed the Sequencer Tour, the conference will focus on three main themes: the internet and how it relates to connection t0 arts and culture, mobility and urban space, and work and the new economy.

There are plenty of reasons the Motor City is a fitting tour stop for the event. Aside from Berlin and Detroit's oft-repeated comparisons as two changing post-industrial cities, as well as a mutual affinity for techno music, a number of major issues pertaining to technology have emerged here in recent years.

One is that Detroit is lagging behind in the digital era, suffering from what some call "digital redlining." Due to infrastructure and cost problems, a 2015 study found approximately 40 percent of Detroit households had no internet connection, including mobile devices, while 57 percent of households had no hardline connection and 70 percent of the city's school-age children had no internet access at home.

"In many ways you could say the cost of internet is a new poll tax," Bill Callahan, director of the Cleveland-based nonprofit Connect Your Community, previously told Metro Times. "This has now become a civil rights issue."

Another issue is the fight against facial recognition surveillance technology, which was approved by the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners last week despite a growing chorus of concern from citizens and civil rights groups. Detroit City Council and the Michigan House and Senate are considering a moratorium on the technology, which has been criticized as unconstitutional.

To that end, one of the panels hosted by re:publica is "Surveillance Doesn't Make Us Safer," which features speakers like Janice Gates of the Detroit Community Technology Project, attorney Eric Williams from the Detroit Justice Center, journalist Marie Bröckling, and author and organizer Tawana Petty. The event will be moderated by Katie Hearn.

In all, more than 70 speakers are slated to present, perform, head work workshops, or appear as part of panels. They include Saskia Sassen, a professor of sociology at Columbia University; Rochelle Riley, Detroit's recently appointed director of arts and culture and a former Free Press journalist; Diana Nucera, the director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, who also performs as electronic music artist Mother Cyborg; water activist Monica Lewis-Patrick; Wayne State University professor Peter Hammer, also Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights; artist Tiff Massey; former MT electronic music columnist Walter Wasacz; hip-hop artist and producer Bryce Detroit; and Dimitri Hegemann, the Berlin-based techno club owner with designs on transforming Detroit's long-abandoned Fisher Body 21 building into a nightclub.

Entertainment includes a Friday performance of Salt City, a "techno choreopoem" by jessica Care moore and Aku Kadogo, and a closing party with DJs Tammy Lakkis, BEIGE, John Collins, Deepchord, and Tom Linder.

Gebhard says speakers came from a public call for entries, as well as re:publica's curatorial team. Funding comes, in part, from Wunderbar Together, "the German government's year-long celebration of German-American friendship."

The way Gebhard sees it, places like Berlin fall somewhere between the two main models for the internet in the world today: Silicon Valley's free market-based approach in the U.S., and the state-controlled internet of China.

"Our perspective is not [just] to say this is just a new technology," he says. "This is a dramatic societal change."

Questions as to how societies should navigate this seismic shift "are not answered by either model," he says.

"There has to be a discussion about how a digital society can be structured that is inclusive and positive," he says. "We don't have answers on that. There has to be something between these two models. Maybe we can find together what the answer is."

re:publica's Sequencer Tour runs on Friday, Sept. 27 and Saturday, Sept. 28 at the Tangent Gallery and Hastings Street Ballroom, 715 E. Milwaukee Ave., Detroit; All events are free and open to the public. Guests can register here.

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