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Are new developments in technology opening or closing our minds?

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A photograph of a person (James Ball, journalist) speaking on stage at Web Summit 2023. They are gesturing with their hands. The photograph is on top of a solid background with two small square blocks, one with a ring of solid circles and the other with a block ring.

Psychedelics, conspiracy theories and gender equality are just some of the big issues facing society today. Here’s what our past speakers had to say about them. 

Web Summit 2023 brought together speakers from across the globe to discuss everything from AI and investment to some of the major challenges facing society. 

While we live in a time of great innovation in technology and science, it is also a time of political polarisation, alienation and conflict.

Here are some of the highlights on social issues at Web Summit 2023, from speakers including the journalist James Ball, Compass Pathways’ co-founder Ekaterina Malievskaia, and Clare Chappaz of La French Tech.

QAnon: The other pandemic

Journalist and author James Ball shone a light on the darker recesses of the internet, offering insights into the QAnon phenomenon. 

A decentralised system of conspiracy theories – many revolving around a messianic dedication to Donald Trump – QAnon constitutes a second pandemic, according to James.

While stating that QAnon is “stupid” and “really dumb”, James said that “no one should think that they’re too clever not to fall for a conspiracy theory … and QAnon trains you to radicalise yourself”.

The strength of it lies in the fact that it is leaderless – suffering from “tall poppy syndrome”, in which any emergent leader or dominant figure is cut back down to size – while also being adaptable as “the conspiracy theory that ate all other conspiracy theories”.

It should not be underestimated as a fringe conspiracy theory, according to James, given that “it is very firmly embedded in the US Republican base”. Perhaps more notably, it has also deeply infiltrated the echelons of the UK’s governing Conservative party.

“You’ll see even a relatively mainstream government say things that are quite adjacent to QAnon,” said James. “Doing a fairly shameless bit of flirting with conspiracy that makes no sense at all – and I don’t think works for them – are the Conservative party, who are in government in the UK. At their annual party conference, they made a big thing of banning so-called ‘15-minute cities’ that would stop you leaving the area where you live, which no one has proposed. And also, they are the government – they would be the sinister power behind it.”

According to James, QAnon isn’t going away anytime soon, and those who know nothing about the group may soon find out more than they would like.

When it comes to equality, ‘where are the men?’

“Where are the men?” asked Clara Chappaz, director at La French Tech – a public body responsible for supporting France’s tech ecosystem – in a challenge to the women in tech audience.

Clara was referring to discussions on equality issues, which are usually dominated by women in spite of the fact that the responsibility to foster greater gender equality is a shared one. 

Less than 30 percent of tech workers and less than 10 percent of founders are women, and less than 20 percent of management positions are held by women. Half of women tech workers quit the industry after they reach 35 years of age. 

Without deliberate action, the situation is unlikely to improve. “The number of women VCs is worse, and you have close to no women general partners,” said Clara.

There are 14 million tech workers in the world: 11 million men and three million women. By underrepresenting half of the global population, who knows what ideas are being missed? 

“It’s a question of opportunities and performance,” said Clara.

There is still cause for optimism, though: “What we’re seeing in France is a first generation of funds that are going after women-founded companies only,” said Clara.

As these funds break new markets with women-founded startups, it is inevitable that other investors will follow suit. This cascade effect may finally bring tech the gender balance it needs.

‘This is your brain on drugs’

Psychedelics are having a massive moment in medicine and, although there is remaining scepticism about its benefits, support for drug therapy is steadily increasing.

So said Ekaterina Malievskaia, co-founder of Compass Pathways, a biotech company focused on patient access to innovative technology in the mental health sector.

“The perception of psychedelics has changed with the introduction of fMRIs and technology. We can actually see the neurophysiological processes and what happens in the brain, so it’s not some kind of ineffable voodoo experience,” said the co-founder.

But it’s not just taking these drugs that has improved the lives of patients – it’s the combination of drug consumption and talk therapy.

“Clinical trials with MDMA have shown that the MDMA does not have anywhere close to the same effect on PTSD when taken just as a pharmaceutical without the therapy,” said Sherry Rais, co-founder and CEO of Enthea, a healthcare company offering psychedelic therapies as workplace benefits.

“The therapy that happens after [drug ingestion] is pivotal to that healing and to cementing the learnings,” said Sherry.

The results of these drug therapy sessions have been so overwhelmingly positive for patients that Enthea has “seen an 86 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms after a course of ketamine therapy,” according to Sherry.

Web Summit Qatar takes place in Doha from February 26-29. Book your tickets now.

Main image: Web Summit

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