When 90,000 people descend on a relatively mellow American city excited to throw themselves into a nine-day conference and festival, things are bound to get crazy. SXSW 2018 delivered in spades and was at various times inspirational, frightening, innovative, old-school, controversial, heartbreaking and mesmerising.
Often those emotions swung wildly depending on whether we were talking about humans or machines. Or Donald Trump.
And the guns, shot above our heads
An Austin local I met queuing for coffee told me that people from Austin describe their city as a blueberry sitting in a bowl of tomato soup. And he’s right. Austin is one of the most liberal cities in America, located in a state that also has the most liberal gun laws in America.
What does that mean?
It means that people can legally walk around carrying an unconcealed gun. And while I didn’t actually see anyone carrying an unconcealed gun – I’m still getting over the idea of it. Now, onto the celebration of ideas.
The elephant that owned the room
The first thing that is touching all the keynotes and panels I’ve been to, (well except maybe for the blockchain and crypto ones), is #MeToo and #TimesUp.
Change in the U.S. feels permanent and women across all industries are in no mood to tolerate anything with a remote sniff of the old way of the world. That genie isn’t ever going back into that shitty, confined bottle. I can only hope to feel the Force in Australia like I felt it in the US.
On the topic of women, I’m feeling good when it comes to the future. I’ve lost count on the number of smart, funny, confident, insightful and strong women of all ages I’ve listened to on panels and presentations at SXSW 2018.
If they represent the changing of the guard across media, marketing, advertising and even tech, then we have plenty to be excited about.
Listen to the recording of ‘Art Attack: Data as the New Creative Director’ and hear from four exceptionally clever women and you’ll get my drift.
The epicentre of this intelligentsia was at the Girls’ Lounge presented by the Female Quotient. This off-grid programme of events presented ideas, arguments and experiences that were next level-inspirational – on the innovation and ideas front – but also from a survival perspective too.
The how to survive and flourish in the male dominated tech/advertising/media scene brought up a lot of common experiences. One of my favourite conversations was Being Fearless: How Women Are Driving the Social Movement Landscape which featured a conversation with Gemma Craven from McCann, New York, a lead on the team responsible for the Fearless Girl project. The bronze statue, Fearless Girl, became a symbol (and a physical pose) for women and girls all over the world. Without giving too much away, stay tuned for her next adventure.
And strike a pose.
What Elon said
The keynote speaker roster was a giant bucket of celebrities and influencers and just super smart people across tech, politics, Hollywood, advertising, media and activism.
A snapshot of the roster included Bernie Sanders, Christiane Amanpour, Sadiq Kahn, Lena Dunham, Melinda Gates and Elon Musk (who offered up, among other things, the following nuggets: SpaceX will be making its first flights with the ship planned for Mars in early 2019, the possibility of WWIII is very real and AI is the beginning of the end).
You can watch his Q&A here.
To get a feel for Elon’s Jesus vibe, (according to Quartz), even Evan Williams, the billionaire co-founder of Twitter was frisked by Elon’s security team before approaching him to say hi.
On the topic of keynotes, you can easily google SXSW 2018 Keynotes and experience them for yourself. Enjoy!
There were two key themes that kept bouncing around the panels and keynotes throughout the conference. For every occasion I’d hear ‘Here’s how AI and machine learning is transforming/disrupting our lives…’ I’d also hear ‘But we’re all craving connection and intimacy with another human…’
And that has to be a good thing because if I heard another discussion about machine learning, I might just give up and…buy a robot puppy to love.
Speaking of robot puppies, of course they were at SXSW 2018. And thanks to AI, are programmed to learn to read our emotions through voice and touch and act accordingly (cute puppy play, sad puppy because I’m sad or not getting enough attention from you so fetch the bone for a tickle puppy – you get the picture).
The robot litter of puppies featured in Sony’s WOW studio went on sale in Japan two weeks ago. The kids can’t get enough of them. And to be honest, neither could I.
On an interesting side note, Viceland SXSW featured live animals in the form of baby goats at their petting zoo. The baby goats did appear distressed by the hipster experience and when temperatures soared, common sense kicked in and the baby goats were removed to a cooler climate.
I’m thinking baby goat robots might be a better way to go next year.
Authenticity is the key to being authentic
Another buzzword toppling out of the mouths of panellists and keynote presenters alike was authenticity. And it’s around this theme that many of the contradictory arguments of SXSW 2018 were presented.
I listened to the editor of Teen Vogue (now a purely digital publication) discuss the importance of authenticity insomuch that Vogue understands teens can spot fake authenticity a mile away. That said, she also followed up by discussing the ongoing trend of Rinsta vs Insta – another interesting take on – well – a version of fake content in the form of curated Instagram profiles.
Increasingly (and this was put forward by both the Instagram and Facebook product managers on the same panel), there is a trend towards dual personas on social media. Young kids are presenting profile A – the carefully curated profile they want the world to see (and probably their parents) and profile B (Rinsta – or Real Instagram) – the profile where they get to be their true selves which is a persona only shared amongst close friends.
Imagine a world where tweens are adopting dual digital personas as a perfectly normal and acceptable practice. Do with that what you will.
In response to a question about whether or not Facebook or Instagram should only allow one profile per person to cultivate a more authentic experience on social (and eradicate the rest of the baggage that comes with the growing trend of more than one profile), the Instagram product manager said that would spoil the fun for people, citing users managing profiles for their pets as a fast growing trend.
On the topic of multiple profiles, later on in the festival I had an interesting conversation with a young coder kid who bragged about having 14 different Twitter handles solely for the purpose of annoying people. Perhaps that is an indication as to why one of the hottest trends identified in another keynote I attended was people deciding to abandon social media.
That’s right, analogue is the new black. After meeting that kid, I can see why.
Politics and brands: Your time is now
The politics and brand presentation was another favourite of mine. We’re not talking politics in the frame of elected officials, but politics in terms of brand values.
Your values are your politics.
The big thinking in this space is we (we is festival speak for millennials) want brands to speak out – and we’ll penalise them for being quiet. If a brand doesn’t get out there and stake their position – then people will do it for them – and that story doesn’t always end well.
It got me thinking post the marriage equality movement, what’s next for Aussie brands to take a stand on?
A quick strategy follows these steps: 1. Test the waters 2. Own your position and, 3. Walk the walk.
If you’re wondering what brand is leading the way and has been consistently doing it right for a long time, look no further than Patagonia:
Never in a million years did I think I would see this
For me, one featured conversation represented the absolute convergence of everything SXSW represents. And that conversation was between Chelsea Manning and Sally Stringer from Vogue.
Convicted by court martial for leaking classified Army intelligence to WikiLeaks, Private Manning was imprisoned for eight years (one of which was spent in solitary confinement), during which time he transitioned, and following a Presidential Pardon by Obama, walked free as Chelsea just over a year ago.
Funny, ‘prison is just like high school – but you don’t get to leave’, fragile, brave, thoughtful, scary-level intelligent (she is a technologist and network security expert) and very much alone, Chelsea is a prison activist, LGBTIQ advocate, machine learning expert, believer in the distrust of Big Government and most recently, US Senate candidate.
Arriving in Iraq with the belief she could ‘math the crap out of the problem’ Chelsea said the code she wrote to determine predictive behaviour for advertisers was the same code used to predict the behaviour of the enemy, and make it easier for the US military to do their job (finding the enemy and killing them).
Chelsea also discussed the need for a code of ethics for people who work in tech. It’s not so much the code you write – it’s how that code is applied out of context that’s dangerous.
On the topic of leaking to WikiLeaks, she stood by her decision that led to her imprisonment, telling us, if she didn’t make the decision, that was something she had to live with for the rest of her life. That said, she did muse on the path her life may have taken if, on a whim, she didn’t quit her job at Starbucks and join the military.
In January 2018, Chelsea announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate election in her home state of Maryland. Can you imagine the U.S. tech executives fronting up to a grilling by U.S. Senator Chelsea Manning – someone who actually understands the darker arguments around the use and abuse of technology?
We can only hope.
A few final thoughts
South by (as we all ended up referring to it) really is a choose your own adventure type of ride. And each annual conference brings with it new things to be excited about as much as it does things that will terrify you. I saw so many things and met so many people to be inspired by – and I listened to the experts discuss issues that made me want to unplug and go off-grid as a survival strategy.
But the biggest message of all was probably the simplest: Awareness. Be aware of the world around you. Be aware of what’s going on. Skepticism is not always a bad thing. And while climbing a virtual tree wearing a headset is super fun, so is going outside and – you know – climbing an actual tree.
If you want more SXSW 2018 coverage, check out our photo collage post on our Culture page.
Written by Cath Pope