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My introduction to Kinnernet Europe comes in an email inviting me to participate in a “wild, out-of-the-box, irreverent, bottom-up innovation, creativity, technology and cultural Unconference”. At the bottom is a link to a secret Facebook page.
I feel like Alice, falling into a virtual rabbit hole. The invitation-only event has no formal schedule; no keynote speakers and was first convened 10 years ago by Yossi Vardi, an Israeli technology impresario who says his key criterion for selection is “talent”.
The agenda is driven by what’s on the “mind” of the group. PowerPoint is out; crowdsourcing – even of the closing dinner – is in. Pitching your business is out; “disruption” is in. Participants range from German tech entrepreneurs to American artists; robot designers to an accidental Ukrainian activist.
This year’s Europe meeting is in Avallon, Burgundy. After a journey by Tube, Eurostar, taxi, train and bus, I arrive at a former mill by a river. Attendees loll in the sunshine, many in declarative T-shirts: “Stop being a tourist”, “Resistance is futile”.
After a brief introduction from Marc Goldberg, one of the event’s directors, a Gadgethon ensues. Men, in an awkward line, lean against a wall, clutching gadgets. One shows off a €2,000 saddleless unicycle. Another has an “ear switcher” – a contraption that sits on your head and meddles with your hearing.
The next morning, two giant whiteboards appear outside the local museum. Attendees are invited to write in any sessions they will host. “It’s not a billboard; it’s a wiki-board,” explains Goldberg. Soon there are more than 70 sessions on it ranging from politics to new-age yoga: “In one hour conceive an app . . . How do we code and finance it?”, “Ideas for French democracy”, “Bio-hacking”, “Mind-reading: a look inside the human brain”.
A day of talks is exhausting. I debate the public role of poets; hear from a man about his submersible drill; in a fascinating session choreographed by David Rowan, editor of Wired UK, I address 36 increasingly intimate questions to a near stranger, surrounded by the museum’s swords and helmets.
Most memorable are the random encounters. One is with Yosi Taguri, who tells me about Yalo, which aims to reinvent the phone-call experience, offering additional features such as recording your calls, allowing voice search on them, transcribing them and caller priority. Think of it as your very own NSA or GCHQ.
Usually I hate costume parties but, such is the collaborative vibe, I feel obliged to join in. In Avallon’s only vintage clothes shop, I try on some of the most revolting paisley-patterned 1970s viscose dresses I can find. In the end I opt for a bright yellow polo neck, with buttons, and wide green and white-striped trousers. By the end of the night, I am sitting outside Goldberg’s house wearing my 1970s garb, “robot bunny ears” that are supposed to detect thought patterns, whirring away and rotating, while talking to an artist who paints on people, to make them look like themselves. I have certainly escaped whatever box I came in.
When I was a student, I attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace with my father who had secured a prized invitation reserved for the military. In a small act of rebellion I read A Clockwork Orange on the way, while wearing a Sloaney flowery dress. This time, rebellion takes a different form.
The invitation includes etiquette for guests. One guideline is in capitals and is underlined: “Photography is prohibited in the palace and garden.” The message is reinforced on arrival. “Cameras prohibited.”
We make our way to the royal viewing line. It’s a polite scrum. Guests jostle quietly. Rogue feathers from hats poke eyes. People squeeze past with plates overladen with Dundee cake and coffee eclairs. Yet, as the wait continues, phones and cameras emerge from bags and tailored pockets, as guests pose for shifty selfies, trying to avoid the gaze of the equerries. The latter, wearing top hats and tails, twirl umbrellas as they divide the crowd, Moses-like, into two halves. “You’re in a very jammy position,” one says. “Prince Andrew will come through there. And Prince Philip, and the Duke of Gloucester. They will be coming at you like rabbits!”
As the royals near, a woman faints. A chair is found. Seeing her in distress, Kate Middleton bends down to say hello. “Ooh, good ploy,” says a guest behind me, waspishly. And now a confession: after showing restraint as the Queen passes, I take a discreet snap of Prince Philip.
I am not alone. I spot soldiers taking selfies; even two priests pose for each other. As the long afternoon shadows fall, we head for tea only to find the cakes are long consumed. There are only cucumber and mint sandwiches left, and no plates. “There’s got to be some left!” shouts a pink, irate woman. As we head for the palace gates, a poor official counsels: “Ladies and gentleman, no more snaps now.” A pause. “No, sir,” he adds with a sigh, “please don’t photograph the guards.”
The FT is a media partner of Founders Forum, which creates unique events for entrepreneurs. After a grand dinner at the Greenwich Painted Hall, the big day is at the Grove resort, outside London. As Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, takes the stage, Brent Hoberman, co-founder of FF, announces the event is under Chatham House rules – we can reveal content but not speakers’ names. In his next breath he tells us the hashtag #FFLondon. Schmidt starts speaking. I check my Twitter feed: his talk is simultaneously aired.
I bump into Limor Schweitzer, head of RoboSavvy.com, who has travelled here with his bag of robots from the Unconference. He sets loose a “telepresence robot” – an iPad stand on wheels (a sort of Segway) that enables someone at a remote location to navigate his or her way around a room and then, thanks to the head-height iPad, talk to people.
Stephen Fry is first up. Feeling socially liberated, I decide to “tweak” his tie, which generates a gratifying chuckle from the digital Fry. He, in turn, steers up to the dashing Richard Reed of Innocent Drinks and “touches” him “inappropriately”. “It was excellent,” says Reed: after all, it is not every day you are “touched” by a virtual Stephen Fry. Then adventurer Bear Grylls takes over. He navigates his way into the ladies toilets where “a lady gave him a stern look”, says Schweitzer.
In the digital world, as in the Queen’s garden party, social etiquette is a fast-evolving thing.
Caroline Daniel is FT Weekend editor
Illustration by Nick Oliver