While there were keynote talks about everything from quantum computing to expeditions to Mars at SXSW Interactive this year, underpinning the festival more than ever was a more down to earth (forgive the pun) reflection on society.
This is an event that used to be about future technologies at its core; anchored in the evolution of this thing called the internet. Today, however, it’s increasingly focused on much wider cultural movements because of the way in which connectivity infiltrates every part of our lives. The two are no longer distinguishable.
Politics, entertainment and human rights are all just as much a part of the conversation in Austin these days as those big tech or forward-looking viewpoints, as a result. And thus, this year’s trends are equally a mirror of that fact – a blend of what really matters to humanity first and foremost, underpinned by the technology that is both shaping and supporting it.
While artificial intelligence permeated the entire festival – noteworthy not as a trend but as an overarching umbrella to which all arrows are pointing for the future of computing – nearly every conversation kept coming back to one thing: being human.
With discussions exploring the role of automation, multiple case studies for machine learning, not to mention examples of how fast and how deep such systems are being trained, the focus, time and again, returned to the very idea of our humanity and our culture.
Even Bruce Stering, author and longstanding commentator, closed out the five-day event by turning the view on robotics into a conversation around art and culture: “We’re spending too much time making robots useful and commercially viable. We’re not thinking enough about what this exquisite control of motion ought to mean aesthetically. It’s like we’re spending too much time at the gym doing squats and not enough dancing. So I think the tech world needs to find more confidence in their artistic impulses.”
But the festival at large wasn’t just about creative license or inputting empathy in the robots or artificial intelligence we’re building (as was so focused on in 2017), but actually about reminding us of who we are as a society full stop.
Evidence lay in the very fact so many of the big keynotes on stage weren’t from the world of technology at all. Esther Perel, a renowned relationship therapist, stole the limelight on day one for instance, when she discussed the role of belonging and loneliness in the context of modern community. “We used to have belonging but little freedom. Now we have so much freedom but little sense of belonging,” she said, highlighting the very idea of what we’re craving.
Our constant battle, Bozoma Saint John, the gregarious chief brand officer from Uber, agreed, is around balancing our sense of connectivity with actual human connections. “We can use our tech to better our society and our everyday lives, but we also need to connect to people… How do we make sure in a world where things are moving so fast, that we can keep up, yet still be in touch with our humanity?” she asked.
What’s interesting to see is how this focus is starting to impact the experiences we’re creating. Even in retail today, the idea of connected or interactive stores, like Amazon Go, are becoming less about the technology itself, and more about the tech moving out of the way, or being increasingly invisible, so as to allow us to get back to the human side of what we’re doing. It’s about optimizing experiences for the human involved –in Amazon’s case, by making it about convenience.
But the same goes at the luxury end of things. As José Neves, CEO of Farfetch, said in a fireside conversation with TheCurrent’s Liz Bacelar: “If anything, companies need to think [about] how can we develop technologies that enhance the human? The store of the future for us is about how can we make the storytelling about everything humans can do – the computers can check stock, the computer can do payment; let’s get the robotic stuff out of the way, and let the human concentrate on the interaction.”
Women and diversity
That notion of humanity, society and culture spilled over unsurprisingly into widespread discussions around equality and diversity. The idea of women having a seat at the table is not a new topic for SXSW. Women in tech has long been a subject at this festival, but it had new resonance, greater weight and a bigger focus on action off the back of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, both of which were represented on stage this year.
In her keynote, Melinda Gates, co-chair of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “Companies all of a sudden have to listen to what their employees want. I see the #MeToo movement finally causing a reckoning.”
“We’re in a really serious and complicated moment, where we have to take the power to change the industries and communities and environments we’re in for the better,” said Saint John of Uber, referring both to being a woman on a leadership team as much as to being one of color. She called for both women and men to now be standing up for this.
“We’re seeing it right now, we are demanding change. But this is not the issue of people of color to make the noise. Everyone else needs to make the noise. I want white men to look around in their offices and say let’s change this,” she added.
Whitney Wolfe-Herd, founder of dating app, Bumble, which in its conception is about giving women a greater element of control, likewise pushed the idea of men being part of the solution. “A lot of them have been the problem, but now it’s time to be part of the solution. That stands for something.”
Bumble, she said, has always been about doing things in a female-forward way, from the nature of the app itself, to the structure of the team internally. “We encourage more and more seats, we built bigger tables,” she said.
And Saint John then brought it back to our humanity once more: “We need to use this moment in time to remember what our humanity is. It will help in all the things we are talking about – in diversity, in women empowerment and in moving forward.”
Tied up in the equality and diversity conversation, is a greater underlying societal reflection of uncertainty. Trust is at an all-time low hot off the heels of the fake news agenda that dominated headlines last year, not to mention a much broader perspective on weakened political and institutional beliefs, and growing concerns for the role of privacy and ownership over our own data.
In fact, the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which was referenced multiple times during SXSW, has shown a straight-line decline for 25 years, with trust in government, the media, and banks at an all-time low. Rohit Bhargava of the Non-Obvious Company, referred to us as being “in the midst of a believability crisis”. With consumers as natural sceptics, the role for brands then is around seeking how to develop or engender a sense of trust in new ways.
This is something Adidas particularly referenced. Eric Liedtke, head of global brands at the company, said: “People don’t just buy what you make, they buy what you stand for.” Referring to a youth generation that has grown up in a world that is highly stressed, he added that people are “looking for trusted brands they can rely on” and that “authenticity is going to be core for this”.
Adidas announced that it’s aiming for all of its products to be made from recycled plastics by 2024, as part of its partnership with Parley for the Oceans, and it called on the rest of the industry to start thinking about the same. The worst problem we have right now is inaction, Liedtke added. “Everyone has to opt in, put their hand in the pile and play.”
That view on sustainability and on climate change, reverberated throughout the week, including in a session hosted by TheCurrent around bioengineering for the fashion industry. All of it tied nicely to the fact Edelman’s 2018 survey also shows there has been a renewed confidence in experts and academics, and a fast recovering belief in CEOs, rewarded for speaking out on specific issues.
With that idea of authenticity, then, came a focus at the festival on how technology can help take this to the next level. Blockchain was the big tech buzzword of the week, once again, with endless sessions dedicated to deciphering and applying it to the future of business and consumerism today.
Explained in basic terms as a digital ledger that acts as a verified and immutable source of truth, it was referenced with regards to everything from healthcare to global supply chain management. “Whether it’s diamonds being pulled out of the ground or fish from the ocean, or a shoe being manufactured and transported, the blockchain means you are able to track that and have high confidence that it’s coming from the place it’s meant to,” said Brian Behlendorf, executive director of Hyperledger.
Graham Wetzbarger, chief authenticator of resale service, The RealReal, similarly said there is a major opportunity to use blockchain to connect consumers to authentication. “Imagine adding a digital ledger for every product, not only for when they’re first bought, but when they’re reselling. How interesting would it be if a product were always telling data? Always adding every place it’s been?” Through provenance then, we can bring about trust.
Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum, also noted blockchain’s relevancy to the privacy element of the trust debate. “On the web right now, I would argue that identity is broken,” he said. “We spray aspects of our identity around the web, it’s stored on corporate servers and is monetized by corporations, and often aspects of your identity aren’t well secured by those organizations.” His belief is that blockchain can solve this.
Of course, this tech isn’t a solution for everything, but in helping to bring back a sense of trust in our everyday systems, it’s evidently part of that broader conversation on humanity and society that SXSW has become so much about. The future, once more then, comes back to us being humans, albeit with tech playing an ever-increasing role in enhancing us in the process.
*Want to know which specific technologies and startups we deemed most relevant from the festival? Our team of startup scouts combed through the innovations demonstrated, examining and analyzing those of chief importance to retailers and brands today. Get in touch to find out more.