This year's South by Southwest threw the spotlight on government, gender equality and more.

March marked the 30th annual edition of South by Southwest, and the 22nd year of the technology offshoot that grew into SXSW Interactive. Sectors that were new to the event a few years ago—sports, fashion, food and other fields not traditionally associated with technology—were maturing and growing into mini-conferences of their own.

As more industries piled on, networking often seemed to trump ideas. On the whole, however, SXSW still managed to live up to its advance billing as a week-long slice of the future, conveniently scheduled over spring break.

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Tech Meets Government

With the news cycle dominated by the drama of the US presidential election, it seemed inevitable that the festival’s techno-optimism would be tempered by political realities this year more than usual. In contrast to 2013, when Cory Booker’s appearance as a Twitter-happy mayor seemed like an amusing footnote to the whole affair, this year SXSW reflected the drama of a technology industry that has grown to eclipse many of our most powerful political and social institutions.

“GAFAM are like failed states,” said futurist Bruce Sterling in his annual closing remarks, referring to Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft with characteristic bombast. “They’re everywhere and doing everything, but they can’t supply anything that states actually supply. They don’t have an ability to interact with other states that’s commensurate with what they actually are.” He noted, for example, that Facebook now has more “users” than the Catholic church.

But there was more: both the unfolding court battle between Apple and the FBI (referenced at many panels) and the first-ever appearance at SXSW by a sitting US president seemed to indicate a fundamental realignment of the role of the technology sector in society.

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President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama addressed audiences at SXSW 2016

Barack Obama, appearing on opening day, was repeatedly pressed by an interviewer on how he would reconcile the fail-fast culture of Silicon Valley with the risk-averse nature of government. The president conceded that “it is much easier to order pizza or a trip than it is for you to exercise the single most important task in a democracy, and that is for you to select who is going to represent you in government.”

But he went on: “The reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you.” After the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov, “we realized was that we could potentially build a SWAT team, a world-class technology office inside of the government that was helping across agencies. We’ve dubbed that the U.S. Digital Services. And we’ve got some of the top talent from Google, from Facebook, from all the top tech companies.”

Obama said employees would often come in for six months to two years to work in obscure agencies like the Small Business Administration, and help get outdated systems up to speed. From the sound of it, coding for the government was fast becoming the new Teach for America.

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The Elephant in the Valley

2016 felt like the year when issues around gender parity—recently dubbed the “Elephant in the Valley,” when it comes to the tech sector, anyway—moved from a side discussion to the center of the conversation at SXSW. This was reflected in panels on everything from online harassment to teen marketing.

In 2015, Google chairman Eric Schmidt and biographer Walter Isaacson were rebuked for repeatedly interrupting Megan Smith, CTO of the United States, during a panel discussion. This year, no one interrupted Michelle Obama as she appeared on an all-female panel kicking off the music portion of the festival.

The first lady used the platform to launch the next phase of Let Girls Learn, her initiative to draw attention to the 62 million school-age girls who are not receiving an education as a result of social barriers around the world. Fittingly, she announced this just prior to the panel in a story on Lena Dunham’s Lenny newsletter, one of several new women-focused media outlets to emerge in the past year.

Gender discrimination, particularly discrimination against women in gaming, received further attention at an all-day event dedicated to combating online harassment. While the panels drew greater attention to the issue, they were sparsely attended, a fact that merely reinforced the gap between intentions and realities in the industry.

“There is this very wide discrepancy between what tech companies say they do and what the outcome is,” said Brianna Wu, a video game developer who has endured repeated online death threats from anonymous strangers after she spoke out about the Gamergate controversy in 2014.

The Innovation Group also chimed in on the gender discussion, with a more positive spin. At a panel called Generation Z and gender: Beyond Binaries?, we released research showing that generation Z, today’s teens, are more aware of a wider variety of sexual and gender identities than millennials, and less likely to buy products specifically aimed at their gender.

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Fashion brand Chromat participated in the Gen Z panel

The New Normcore

SXSW 2016 also seemed to mark a shift in the role of large companies at the festival. In 2014, when Doritos spent $2.5m to put on a Lady Gaga show at a barbecue restaurant, the performance seemed like a bizarre deviation from the SXSW spirit. Although the festival had long since ballooned into a hyper-branded capitalist playground, big brands at the time were coming to see small-scale innovators, not each other.

2016, in contrast, was the year that Quartz declared South by Southwest had become “officially, aggressively normcore.” McDonald’s parked itself directly across from the Austin Convention Center in a space somewhat comically branded the “McLoft.” The brand’s virtual reality experience succeeded better than most, but the match with South by Southwest still felt awkward for the hamburger giant.

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McLoft by McDonald's

In many cases, the big companies on site seemed to be making a pitch to attendees that was similar to Obama’s: “Please work for us!” Minnesota-based conglomerate 3M put up a temporary building that asked what “9 billion [future people] could do working together.” The connection between global good and the black balloons and shiny fabric that made up the installation was not entirely clear, but the message that 3M wanted to be seen as a progressive place to work came through amid the selfies.

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The Big Picture by 3M. Photography by Rick Cortez and Mathew Whalen
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Photography by Rick Cortez and Mathew Whalen
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Photography by Rick Cortez and Mathew Whalen

Deloitte achieved a similar effect with ARC, a musical installation in which visitors could manipulate glowing knobs to shift the output of an ambient musical composition. Deloitte created the installation in partnership with Brooklyn-based design duo Dave and Gabe.

“We believe creativity is the heart of all real disruption,” said Alicia Hatch, chief marketing officer at Deloitte. She explained that just as the installation hoped to approach music in a new way, Deloitte aims to approach traditional agency problems from new angles. “It’s not just about having extra capabilities, it’s actually about having the creative capability to change thinking.”

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ARC by Dave and Gabe

2BVR or not 2BVR

Marketing activations at SXSW this year seemed to be increasingly polarized, parting ways around the safety of the smartphone either toward the unexplored terrain of virtual reality or the nostalgia of analog tech.

VR was everywhere: from the McDonald’s simulation of a Happy Meal to Gillette’s Clinical Clear Gel Pressure Chamber, which sent participants on a virtual journey while monitoring their body’s stress responses (NB: when preparing for an exhilarating virtual future, don’t forget to pack extra deodorant).

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VR experience at the McLoft

Some of the more exciting possibilities of the new virtual space were discussed at, of all things, a panel on the future of museums. Conservators at CyArk presented their efforts to use 3D scanning technology to digitally preserve world heritage sites, while creative technologists discussed how these petabytes of data might be used. A 3D scan of Mount Rushmore hovered over the discussions.

“There’s a billion ways to use the data: light experiences on your website, immersive experiences with augmented reality and virtual reality,” said Tim Bucher, SVP, consumer solutions group at the data storage company Seagate. “The key is turning data into an experience, and that’s when the value of the data really comes out. I might want to stand on Lincoln’s head, but not in the exact way you would do it.”

Meanwhile, some brands went analog. American Greetings created a bar to celebrate the old-fashioned art of paper correspondence, complete with typewriters. “Three or four years ago, everyone had laptops here,” Jon Ruby, SVP and creative director at American Greetings’ agency, Mullen Lowe, told Digiday. “Now they have laptops, but you’re seeing them closed, with Moleskine notebooks perched on top.”

Conversational Commerce

South by Southwest this year also seemed to bear out a prediction made in January by Chris Messina, inventor of the hashtag, that 2016 would be the year of “conversational commerce.” The gist of the idea is that we will increasingly use natural language to communicate with brands and merchants, order products and more.

Amazon’s Alexa voice-command technology has been rapidly expanding to more devices and adding functionality in recent months, and the next obvious step is to tie Alexa to e-commerce. Amazon chose South by Southwest to launch a new partnership with Capital One, which allows Alexa customers to use devices like the Echo, Dot and Tap keep their finances in order via voice alone. Users can simply state they want to pay their credit card bill, for example, and it’s done. It seems a small step from here to tie the service to Amazon’s core retail offering.

Ctrl-Alt-Meditate

Was there any counterculture left to be found at SXSW in its 30th year? If anything, the most radical gesture we noticed was an effort to carve out spaces for reflection, meditation and intimacy in the midst of a hurricane of hashtags.

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Kodak Memory Observatory

Naturally, one of them was sponsored by a major brand. The Memory Observatory, an installation in a quiet corner of the Austin Convention Center, transformed personal photos into moments of intimacy with strangers, via a one-on-one guided reflection on their meaning. Kodak funded the installation and launched a new photo app in tandem (see here for our full review).

Thalia Mavros, who sat with visitors to interpret the photos, said that the Memory Observatory prompted people to share some of their deepest thoughts with first one stranger and then many, “celebrating and reframing those memories within color, smell, sound, in what was likened to a collective out-of-body experience.”

We also noticed Silent Room, an installation by Dutch artist Simon Heijdens, which billed itself as “a space devoid of any sound or color—a black hole in the center of the sensory overload that is SXSW.” The space blots out all outside noise, and, taking a page from John Cage’s playbook, invites visitors to “become the sound.”

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Silent Room by Simon Heijdens

Finally, during the music portion of the festival, media platform The Front (founded by the same Thalia Mavros) sponsored Into You, an event by artists Molly Soda and Rachel Bell. The two-day showcase aimed to counter the elitism of the art world by providing a temporary IRL space for digital creators.

During the night, the artists gathered selected guests for an old-fashioned sleepover, with mattresses courtesy of the company Casper. With the SXSW schedule bloated from dawn to dusk, the event took advantage of the only “quiet time” left—the dead of night—to offer a warmer and more human alternative to the contrived nature of the art world.

“The Memory Observatory, the Silent Room and the concept-project Into You were all anti-SXSW experiences,” Mavros said. “They demanded intimacy, reflection, and safe space and challenged the notions at the core of SXSWi and SXSW music: interactivity and performance.” Not to mention providing a welcome corrective to the sheer scale of the whole production.

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Into You by artists Molly Soda and Rachel Bell