by Nic Ho Chee
This weekend saw the Battle of Ideas return to the Barbican for its tenth year, filling the many wonderfully Brutalist corridors, rooms and venues with conversation and conjecture. Held over two days, the festival ran open-ended, topical debates in the various spaces afforded by the centre, where a variety of expert panels unpacked burning issues and opened out the discussion to the audience. The event organisers’ aim was to encourage free-thinking and dialogue by exposing an array of differing viewpoints and stimulating active participation in those who were assembled.
This was my first visit to the festival, I’d been meaning to attend prior years but for a variety of reasons was waylaid. With our political parties homogenising towards something lumpen and hateful as our economies struggle to cope with de-industrialisation and debt mountains of epic proportions, now seemed a great time to attend in antidote. Ambling across the raised walk-ways of the Barbican on the first day, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I be surrounded by a sea of sixth-form students energetically exercising recently acquired po-faced notions, or perhaps dusty experts whose arguments were full of stultifying technical nuances that only a subject matter aficionado would be capable of deciphering? Thankfully neither of these was the case, the students who were in attendance were more measured and thoughtful, whilst the talks were captivating and accessible to a varied audience.
It was enjoyable to watch passionate, cogent speakers covering nearly one hundred topics that ranged from whether evidence based teaching was required, to whether love was a romantic illusion or if we needed foodbanks in a society with a functioning social service. There were so many interesting talks to go to that it was actually difficult choosing between the various strands of conversation held across the two days. Given the plethora of debates run at the same time, generally nine or ten held every hour and a half, you could only really sample a small proportion of the information flow generated across the weekend. For those members who wanted to immerse themselves more fully, most debates will be available in video form at the Battle of Ideas website over the coming year.
As the attendees crowded into the exquisitely awesome Barbican Milton Court venue for the final plenary session some were wound up to the balcony overlooking the remaining orators. In amongst this throng, I mulled over the events of the weekend and the various gatherings I had attended. The chair of the debate explained that the talk was stimulated by a book, “Plato At the Googleplex” written by one of the speakers. The statement caused my fragmented thoughts to coalesce into a compiled state. Creative destruction and disruptive technologies have disintegrated the bindings of a world shaped by the previous industrial turning, this may have always been the case between turnings, but the rhythm appears more pronounced as our fast paced channels share the changes 24/7. The Battle of Ideas is an inspiring countermeasure, aiding in exercising mental muscle so it can sift, debate and synthesise the data pouring in from our always-on media. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and can strongly recommend a visit next year.