CommonSense Blog

“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”: this is not a pipe. The Duality of Digital – minimizing risks and maximizing gains.

By Annalise Coady | Sep 23, 2015

Annalise_Coady_CMYKThis is a full manuscript of the opening keynote at our 2nd Annual PreCommerce Summit in London, 2015.

Thank you all very much for coming. I hope that on the way in, you had a chance to look at the art we have up, which owes a great debt to the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, who blew minds back in the 1920s with a painting of a pipe and the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”: this is not a pipe.

Magritte was making a statement about art and about reality, and how the two shouldn’t be confused. A painting of a pipe is not a pipe. It’s a representation. It’s only shorthand for something real.

It’s fun to imagine what Magritte might have thought if he was born a century later and was coming of age during the digital revolution we’re living through. I like to think he would have come up with concepts like the ones we have on display.

summit_artwork_02

We’re one step further into the surreal. The art of photography used to require hours in the darkroom, film and artist both marinating in noxious chemicals to modify an image to bring out this color or that detail. Now, we tap our phone to capture an image, tap again to add a filter, tap again to send it to the gallery that is Instagram. Is that art? I’d like to know what Magritte thinks.

And what of love? Does old-fashioned courtship have an analogue in swiping right on Tinder? Clearly there is an overlap between love in the Jane Austen sense and love in the Tinder sense, but app-based hookups? Ceci n’est pas l’amour.

The list goes on and on. AirBnB isn’t a quite a hotel company. Uber isn’t quite a cab company. Buzzfeed isn’t quite a news company. N’est pas. N’est pas. N’est pas.

Many of you who are younger never knew how perilous the telephone was. Back when communication was carried by wires, talking, especially with those in other countries was exorbitantly expensive and difficult to arrange. I spent time abroad with my family as a child, and the telephone calls back to the UK had to be booked a week in advance, and still might not necessarily go through. Connectivity was a luxury and precious.

Flash forward to my life as a young professional, when I was living abroad. But rather than paying pounds-per-minute, I was talking using Skype, broadcasting not only my voice but my image across thousands of miles. For free. Is Skype a 21st century telephone? Almost, but not quite. N’est pas.

The point of all of this is that we’re limited in how we think about digital because we don’t have the language yet to describe the new world. Like Magritte, the best we can come up with is shorthand, using old words and concepts that almost, but not quite, describe reality. Shorthand for something real.

This can be a liability, because it hides complexity and often hides the darker side of technology. Those who took the easy route and assumed Uber is just a next-generation taxi company probably failed to see the lawsuits coming. There is now, particularly in the United States, mounting pressure to define the status of Uber drivers as something other than free agents with cars. What, exactly, is their labour status? It’s a question worth billions.

What’s clear is that the digital tide is not receding and will not recede. There are more active mobile connections now than there are people in the world. The average consumer engages with 18.2 pieces of online content before making a decision, which is both amazing and potentially paralyzing.

And HR Zone says three quarters of employees have seen their role or career change as a result of technology in the last 12 months. Let me repeat that: three out of every four people have had their job changed by technology IN THE LAST YEAR. It is a wonder we feel off balance with reality constantly shifting.

Please do not misunderstand me. The digital revolution has made us smarter and more productive, and it has connected us in ways that are nothing short of extraordinary. But handling, profiting and thriving in this environment requires careful thought and precise language, so we can tell the pipes from the paintings of the pipes, so to speak.

And that’s part of the reason that I’m so excited to have such an incredible range of presenters today. All are individuals who are grappling not only with change, but ways to ensure that we understand technology so we can minimize risks and maximize gains.

Our afternoon is split into 3 sections, and we’re going to start with the good news and look at how digital has influenced the wellbeing of society from a handful of different angles, including the ways we can use new tools to improve human health and accelerate aid efforts to the world’s most vulnerable. To help us wrap our heads around that, we’ll invite to the stage:

  • Dina Rey – Head of Digital Group at Roche,
  • Anna Gruebler – Data Scientist and Software Engineer at Altviz,
  • Jessica Federer, Chief Digital Officer at Bayer
  • Anita Yuen, Global Head of Digital Fundraising at UNICEF.

For the second part of this afternoon, we’ll look at how technology companies are evolving in this digital age. Or is it a matter of revolutionising. Our speakers will be:

  • Steven Overman – CMO at Eastman Kodak.
  • Kester Ford – Director of Product Marketing at Datasift.
  • Simon Shipley – Marketing and Innovation Manager at Intel.

And post our break:

  • A former CIA Analyst and the star of Channel 4’s show Hunted, Cynthia Storer,
  • VP and Global Head of Corporate Communications at Tata Consultancy services Pradipta Bagchi,
  • And our own President Bob Pearson will summarize how technology is impacting the way we live, work, and create in this digital world.

We’re also thrilled to have here with us Lord Chadlington and Steve Milton, who will participate in the programme along with my colleagues Colin, James and Gary.


I think the conversations have truly shown we are in the middle of the new industrial revolution and we need to remain fluid and open to new ideas and opportunities whilst yet being mindful and aware of the true impact on our lives, organisations and communities that digital technology can bring. We are still human and digital technology will not be the only factor in our future. Human nature prevails. La nature humaine est  prédominante.

Thank you to all our speakers as well as my wonderful colleagues for their fantastic moderation. I want to thank the W2O Team behind the event, you know who you are. And I would like to thank you all here today in London’s living room as well as those who joined us via live stream for your enthusiasm and participation. I am looking forward to connecting with you at the reception or in the digital world. Remember this is not a pipe!