The smoky scent of embers. The hint of damp in hotel corridors. The perpetual hum of guitars. The familiar bouquet for the senses that is SXSW and Austin, Texas.
SXSW has now been a regular beat on my event circuit for some time. It’s an event I look forward to attending, not for the BBQ and tacos, but for the breadth and depth of ideas shared. Technology, creative arts, science, politics, all fused together into a week plus event of cerebral stimulation.
This year was notable for the turning on tech in the line-up assembled, and the voices given platforms.
Prime-time stage time was given to many of the democratic presential hopefuls, none more outspoken on big-tech than Elizabeth Warren. She used her presence to launch her attack on technology. She was calling for regulation to break-up the big-players, and even wind-back previous acquisitions.
Roger McNamee, the long-term Silicon investor and early mentor to Facebook, now turned critic and author of the book Zucked, lauded in his opinions. Broken business models, profiteering on our digital exhaust, trading personal data without our knowledge, and selling advertising based on predictions of our future behaviour is not the way, he argued. He was on the Warren bus. We must do better, his message.
Douglas Rushkoff an original cyber-punk was there to launch his book, and movement, Team Human. In his poetically eloquent way, he was arguing that we need to take back control. Technology is our tool not our master, he opined. Technology is taking us away from one another, not bringing us together. Manipulating our behaviour. Making us less human.
Digital anthropologist and analyst, Brian Solis, was there to proclaim how technology, his area of specialism in which his career was founded, had beaten him. First-hand he had seen how technology had changed his behaviour, enhanced his procrastination, dehumanised him, distracted him to the point it cost him financially and emotionally. He also highlighted beyond his own case the rapid reduction in our attention spans, the rise of anxiety conditions and the staggering increases in plastic surgery in 20-year-old girls. He was at SXSW to ask us to rethink, and to not be our selfie, but to be our self.
Surveillance capitalism is the culprit in these prophets’ eyes; selling and trading our data, using predictive models to more effectively market to us, whilst using psychology tricks to keep us sharing and consuming. To addict us. The industry has lost its way, the message.
It wasn’t all anti-social media. Malcom Gladwell, opinionated as ever, turned his intellectual attention to the rush to automate driving. What about the unintended consequences to this innovation? The technology industry hasn’t got a great track record in securing its products and the data of its customers; do we really want our transport to be all on a network that invariably will be hacked one day? And the notion of less traffic, is it real? Traffic has got worse not better since Uber. He conjectured whether this is innovation for innovation’s sake; technology industry looking for a problem to align innovation to.
The tone was set. This was the year at SXSW when the technology-informed had lost faith. Enough was enough. It was time to rethink.
But SXSW remains an event for the optimist. For the dreamers. Those that think about what comes next. And despite the knuckle rasping, there were glimmers in the programme of what technology could still enable, and what might come. Whether it was new forms of urban mobility making the world smaller and more environmentally friendly (micro-scooters, flying taxis), the role of AI in healthcare (drug discovery, mental health, patient care), pleasure (engineering experiences, VR, AR, sex toys), food (agri-tech, urban-farming) or new industry creation (esports, smart cities).
There is still much for tech to do.