Kiri and


AI-nother Greenbelt

November 19th, 2023 (by Steve)

Every time we go camping, we seek to defy physics – squash every atom of everything that’s in the car to try to fit the maximum amount in! With the weather forecast for Greenbelt this year being decidedly soggy, we’d purchased a new event shelter which took up extra room… but this was offset by us compromising on the size of pillows and quality of mattress. Somehow, it all fitted and we were off, with the soundtrack of bands from previous Greenbelts on the CD player (Wildwood Kin and Lee Bains III) entertaining us as we queued to get onto the site.

Over the course of a few trips between the car and campsite we transported all of our stuff… some trips with the kids, some without (it’s a long old trek!). And we were done. Only a couple of minor issues… first one was that our new airbed was slightly too wide for the sleeping compartment of the tent. Second one explained how we had managed to get everything in the car. Now a trick to simplify the first night of camping anywhere is to make the meal in advance, then freeze it. The frozen food acts as an extra ice block in the cool bag, then all you have to do is heat it up to eat it. However that doesn’t work if the lovely bolognaise is still in the freezer at home! The ever faithful Milk and Honey campsite store provided us with milk and sausages and we were set. Our niece joined us in our camping huddle, setting up her tent with a rather optimistic sign:

At this stage we took the lead from other parents that were in out group “Let’s have wine now as we might not get a chance later”. As we poured it into the plastic beakers the kids normally use at home, our eldest looked slightly alarmed and said “you’re not going to give us wine… are you?”. Instead we cooked them sausages and pasta, leaving them happy (although a little hyper due to the excitement of Greenbelt). A random man wandered into our camping huddle and asked “has anyone got any scissors?”. It being Greenbelt, we gave him some. It’s what you do, although one of our group did at that point recount an exchange from earlier that day when she thought someone asked “can I borrow your mattress?”. Bit of an odd request until you realise that it sounds very similar to “matches”.

At 8pm with the light fading we attempted bedtime, did the washing up and then there was stillness. Despite the campsite heaving (so many more people than last year, even in our early curfew area) there was a certain air of calm as we attempted a triage of the programme for the following few days, before crashing out shortly afterwards.

6am was announced with a phone alarm – but not mine! We were out of the tent by 6:45 and coffee softened the morning as we had a staggered breakfast. We were staggered that our youngest slept until 8am… and very happy that it was a dry night too! Once fed, we assembled a packed lunch, did the washing up, got glitter on the kids and headed into the main festival in time for the 10:30 kids briefing. We passed the green flags and our youngest announced “we’re leaving Greenbelt”. We passed the yellow flags; “we’re entering the festival”. We passed the orange flags; “we’re in the car park”. Hang on a minute… no we’re not… but let’s play along!

After the welcome for the kids, Kiri took our eldest to the Make and Create venue whilst our youngest played with a friend on the Greenbelt owl… and then it was time for the first session I wanted to get to.

The venue of the talk was Exchange – described as a place for exploring new economies / innovation and this particular session run by CMS had a title of “Tech for Good”. It soon became clear that this session was more about apps, with the desired outcome of the session an idea that could be put through in an application for the KingdomCode hackathon. Whilst this wasn’t quite the session that I was expecting, it was interesting to hear how a community project had made use of an alternative currency app (zlto) to allow refugees who had been volunteering to build up points and exchange them for goods. The panellists explained how the world is an increasing hostile environment for those not included in the digital ecosystem – so many services now rely on “online” – payments, banking, universal credit etc.

We were then put into breakout groups to come up with ideas for an app to take to the hackathon based on local issues in our own particular areas. Our group chatted around issues of loneliness, knowing which resources to trust, supporting local business etc… but in our group all of us questioned why an app should be the answer to these. Surely there are existing mainstream platforms that could meet these needs (if technology is even the answer to some of these issues?). Some of the other groups fed back ideas around integration of digital into phone-based services for the elderly (along the lines of the sermon phoneline I set up in the first lockdown)… or using voice-based AI chatbots to allow the lonely to talk to “someone”. All sorts of philosophical / ethical questions come out of that last suggestion. Since Greenbelt it was interesting to see what was actually taken to the hackathon.

I left the session with mixed feelings as I rejoined Kiri and the kids for lunch at Glade (the main open air stage). There we got chatting to a friend of a friend, and when our friends moved off, the friend of a friend stayed. I love the openness to form community at Greenbelt! Our niece had bought some henna and was decorating every exposed limb… and our kids joined in the action. As we sat and munched, we were approached to answer some questions about Greenbelt and sustainability which we did, as well as our niece complimenting the questionner on her mushroom hat. The outcome? She got one for herself!

By now the crowd was building around us for crowd-pleasers Harry and Chris. Their banter-filled comedy jazz rap set was an hour of joy including classics such as “Let’s all play monopoly“. But interspersed were some more thought provoking pieces – “The fear song” (watch out for those ladders!) and then a personal high point – “Every atom of you“. Chris explained that last year they shared some time backstage at Greenbelt with “Dicky Dawks” along with Chris’ son who has downs syndrome. Now Richard Dawkins has previously said that it is immoral to birth someone with downs syndrome. Chris’ response? To choose to love him.

Since midway through Harry and Chris’ performance, our youngest had been saying “I want to go back to the tent”, so after having a short wander to Greenbelt’s newest venue (Orchard) where we had a look at some coppicing products and a pole lathe too, the two of us headed back to camp. I made tea whilst we both appreciated a touch of downtime away from the noise and bustle of the festival. There was still no sign of the forecast rain, but the temperature dropped soon after tea, so we all headed down to the camping village, watched a bit of jousting and then tucked into a hot chocolate in the 24 hour cafe. It was dark by the time we returned to the tents with only a few spots of rain, but at 9pm the heavens opened, so we took that as a sign to all go to bed!

I was once again on kitchen team come Saturday morning – coffee and breakfast, then making packed lunch and doing the washing up, but I was happy with that. I’d circled several items on the programme associated to themes of AI and faith and the first was this morning, however instead we decided that I’d take the kids to the Folk On Nursery Rhyme time whilst Kiri would do some pyrography. Our youngest was obviously in an appropriate mood for the sort of humour to come, as the question “Daddy, can we have a pet tractor one day” was asked whilst on my shoulders on the walk into the festival.

I came across Folk On at my first every Greenbelt back in 2010 and after a few years away, they were back! I wonder whether Harry and Chris would exist without the foundations of comedy music being laid by Folk On? They were trying something new with this short slot for kids, introducing the set with the words “Prepare to be bemused”. The first nursery rhyme was announced followed by “If you know it, feel free to join in… there might be a couple of verses you might not know”. Our eldest looked at me earnestly and said “I only know one verse”. Me too. For example, I’ve never come across the verse “how much is that capybara in the window, the one with the very square poo”. The kids were delighted. The grown ups were amused. Joyful, unashamed silliness – love it!

Sadly whilst we were being entertained, Kiri had been queueing in vain for the pyrography. A site wide power outage was announced shortly afterwards (unrelated to the pyrography!), so we spent a short while down by the lake watching an old-school juggler. After lunch there was a quandry – there was another session on AI that I’d spied with the author of “Robot Souls“, or I could build shelters out of branches with the kids. I was pleased I chose the latter, as on the way we met some giant pigeons (don’t ask!) and then we all enjoyed constructing a shelter that was in no way, shape or form going to keep out the rain that was falling by then!

Kiri’s parents then took the kids for an hour or so whilst Kiri and I had no agenda. Orchard drew us – a lovely place to be even in the rain, especially when accompanied by an appropriately-named Ale Fresco. We returned to camp for tea and Kiri went to do the ice pack run as our hard block of butter was definitely not hard any more. Over tea I got my AI fix for the day, listening to both a teacher’s perspective, but also a teenager’s perspective of ChatGPT and how pervasive it already was, raising questions around critical thinking and trust.

Whilst Kiri headed off to The Rising Special with Lee Bains III, I focussed on encouraging our wee ones to sleep. It took our youngest so long to drift off, that by the time sleep had taken over, our oldest (who was reading in our bedroom compartment) was also asleep, requiring a 17 point turn in our little tent to manouevre the sleeping child into the correct sleeping bag.

Sunday at Greenbelt means communion – gathering from many traditions, celebrating our diversity and being united in one body. As with every year, we shared a little brown paper bag with a few others around us, containing the things we needed. Every participant made a little tissue paper flower that was then passed forward to the front to be made into a giant art work. The theme this year was angels – the expectation that we will meet angels to comfort us, bring us gifts from God, inspire us and kick us into action. Of course there’s a famous song about angels by a certain Robbie Williams, that we all sang together… I don’t know what I made of that, and I would be interested to know what Robbie would have made of it too! So I focused on the unity aspect of the communion.

After a brief journey to the arctic courtesy of some Greenpeace virtual reality, I settled down for a panel discussion on AI that I attempted to live-tweet (link for those of you not on Twitter / X)… but lost connection midway through (not through lack of strong signal, but through lack of bandwidth). The panel were made up of:

  • Professor Doctor Beth Singler – an anthropologist assistant professor in digital religions who described herself as “Thinking about what you think about what computers might think”
  • Professor Jennifer George – head of computing at Goldsmiths university with a specialism in human-computer interaction
  • Doctor Eve Poole – director of Carnegie Trust and author of (amongst other books) Robot Souls

Each panellist had an opportunity to briefly talk about an area of focus. Eve spoke about rights for robots… drawing parallels to both corporations (that have rights so we have something to sue) and animals (that have rights to protect them from us). Jennifer asked about the consequences of the fall and how it changed our relationship with God – as co-creators now, we should be asking what is AI’s relationship with us, others and the world. Beth focused on the concept of the “singularity” – when AI becomes more advanced than its creators, as this conversation is what is driving much of policy at the moment. Will the singularity be a god? Are we blessed by AI?

In response to audience questions, further topics were touched upon such as bias that will always be baked into any AI based on how it is trained, the hallmarks of what it means to have a soul and who has the power. When Jennifer said that it is the responsibility as a Christian to ask the right questions as a designer, developer or manager (or another role) in creation of AI, it led to a bit of soul-searching in terms of how I am presenting AI output through There were some predictions by the panellists around “what next with AI?” (suitably caveated by Beth with “Anthropologists don’t make predictions…”) and then the panel closed. This is the sort of conversation that we need to be having outside of tech and academic circles – we need to be talking about the implications of AI in schools, churches, families and communities because it will be as ubiquitous as mobile phones before we know it.

While I was getting my geek on, Kiri and the kids were doing an altogether much more wholesome activity of making dorodangos (shiny mud dumplings) as a mindful worship activity; “loving something ordinary into something precious”. They’d also had a bit of a run in with some giant silver tubes that were moving around the festival, but as I don’t want to re-awaken the fear in my youngest, I’ll say no more about that!

Today was also to give us a double dose of Ida Mae, described by our oldest as “my favourite ever band”. We’ve been following the musical journey of Chris and Steph since their time in Kill it Kid and it was great to firstly see them at The Rising with Martyn Joseph alongside Tawiah. And what a celebration of music it was with conversations of collaboration and a clearly shared respect amongst all 4 on the stage. I particularly appreciated one of the songs from Ida Mae’s new album – “My whispers are wildfire” with the lines:

All sitting there like church mice
Before an algorithm antichrist
Who knows what to trust?

An exquisite observation of society.

The kids had been taken to a balloon modelling workshop by our niece and reluctantly (because I can’t stand the sound of balloons squeaking) we joined them there after The Rising. It could only be described as balloon carnage, but eventually we emerged from the tent with a couple of balloon dogs and nerves just about still intact. We wanted to catch Ida Mae in Orchard, but needed food, so as with last year we treated ourselves to tasty stuff from some of the food vans on site. We then had a game of “follow the pizza” across the site to ensure that we were in a good spot for Chris and Steph’s performance.

The last time Kiri and I had seen Kill It Kid live was at the Roundhouse in Camden when we lived in London ten years ago and they were cool. Like really cool… almost too cool. What I loved about Chris and Steph’s stage presence this time was that even though the musicality had been taken to the next level, there was a new warmth and playfulness. It was almost as if we were being invited into their creative space – we felt like participants rather than consumers of their music. Absolutely top notch live music… and the kids appreciated the chance to chat to them afterwards and meet their little one, even offering one of the balloon dogs as a gift!

As we headed back to campsite for the final time we each reflected on our top 5 things of this years’ Greenbelt. Our youngest responded with the word “banana” 5 times (despite only having had 3 bananas at the festival!) before were interrupted by a random child who compelled us to stop and watch his diabolo show! Love it.

Before we were properly ready for it, the time came to leave. Kiri’s parents came to camp to pick up our niece and a couple of our bags to take to the car. I struck camp, very happy that it was dry and the only moisture was a little bit of condensation. I mused along with another fellow camper whether the most efficient way next year to transport stuff between car and campsite might be to inflate the tent like a hot air balloon… one to ponder!

We said our goodbyes and headed to the car to change out of our wellies before the drive home. Hmmm. Couldn’t find the bag with the shoes in. Ooops – it had headed off with Kiri’s parents! The queue to leave the car park was immense – it’s always difficult leaving Greenbelt, but normally that’s not on a physical level. Some campers were getting fairly irate and we heard one lady declare “I’m going to rally people and form a barricade”. I didn’t want to point out that this might slow us down even further… but finally we’d left the grounds and our youngest declared “I miss Greenbelt”. I mean… we could always turn around and go back to the car park for a few hours?!

The question on the way home was whether we’d make it home in time to get to Lidl within bank holiday opening hours. What could we have for tea? If only there were a frozen bolognaise…! You’ll be pleased to hear that we did make it to Lidl, although as I wandered round I wondered what the smell was… until I realised it was me. Oh. Thank goodness I received the text from Kiri before I got to the checkout – “Just clocked what else was in the bag with the shoes… our toilet bags”. Time to buy some deodorant!

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