Brands took a critical look at technology's role in the future at a slightly subdued SXSW.

This year, South by Southwest marked ten years since Twitter’s breakout role at the conference, which lifted it from a little-known techie tool into a media darling for what was then called Web 2.0. Ever since, marketers have beaten a path to Austin to chase the latest tech and innovation breakthroughs—even as fewer technologists seem to make the journey.

This year, few attendees were surprised when no particular app emerged as a game-changer. The last to manage it was Meerkat in 2015, which offered the then-radical service of live-streaming video, an idea that has now been safely wrapped into the ecosystems of large tech players. In these days after the mobile gold rush, few up-and-comers manage to escape the gravitational fields of GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) for long.

Political run-ins

So what was SXSW talking about this year? Aside from 2014, when the conference experienced a brief period of soul-searching following the Edward Snowden revelations, the past few years have been an extended celebration of Silicon Valley in all its glory. 2017 was different—less a rosy look at best-case scenarios than a postmortem on what’s gone wrong with technology, and a warning to avoid even bigger pitfalls down the road.

To offer just one example: instead of celebrating the wonders of Uber, Lyft and the gig economy, SXSW attendees were trying to get around Austin without them as the companies had pulled out following a political battle with the city. Instead, everyone downloaded Fasten, a new ride-hailing service that promptly crashed. The technology industry—and marketing too, for that matter—was bumping up against messy political realities that it previously assumed would work themselves out.

Bruce Sterling, a futurist and science fiction writer who, in the conference’s early days, hosted the SXSW Interactive closing party at his house, once again gave the closing talk (at last year’s edition, he said Donald Trump might be elected). Certainly no Luddite—he reminded the audience that he’d spent years building an IoT-enabled “maker house” in the Italian city of Torino—Sterling said he hadn’t been excited by this year’s takes on wearable tech or VR. (He said of the latter that “just because it’s really cool and interesting doesn’t necessarily make it important—it might not even be an industry”).

Instead, Sterling focused on universal basic income, a proposed solution to the mass unemployment that could follow the automation of many existing jobs. Sterling called it “one of the few things I saw at South By that seems to have legs, and could really be a kind of future situation.”

“It might be that it really is different this time and that something genuinely new is happening—that deep learning and other forms of automation are a lot more potent than other forms of automation,” he said. “It would be the proletariat, turning into the precariat, turning into the unnecessariat.”

Creative AI

Unmistakably, this year was the year AI came to stand in for “the future.” Everyone seemed to be touting the powers and promises of the new technology (or alternatively, like Bruce Sterling, wondering if it will put us all out of work). Design Intelligently for Artificial Intelligence, AI on the Horizon: Challenges, Directions, Futures, and Using AI & Machine Learning to Extend the Disney Magic were just a few of the sessions to mention the topic. “Artificial intelligence is going to allow us to get closer to our characters,” said Disney Consumer Products CTO Mike White, speaking at the panel.

IBM generally prefers the term “cognititive” to AI when it comes to the company’s much-touted Watson technology, which was on display at a nearby branded house. “It’s in everything,” said Phil Gilbert, general manager, design, IBM. “You see how the pattern matching in AI is impacting and helping people solve cyber threats faster. You see what we call the ‘internet of caring things’ and how Watson is helping us understand individual human patterns in living spaces, which allows us to identify whether a person of a certain age is healthy.”

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Experience IBM @SXSW. Credit: IBM

“The big new thing is really right behind us,” said Gilbert, pointing to an area where visitors were composing new songs to match their moods, with help from cognitive tech. “We’ve advanced Watson to the point where Watson is actually helping us become more creative and innovative.” He mentioned another tool that allowed weather data from different cities to be translated into music. “You’re seeing Watson here being displayed not simply as an augmenter of things and intelligence, but as a creative partner.”

Biotech rising

Another tech topic that inspired genuine excitement was biotechnology, from DNA editing to bio-mimicry in manufacturing and more. Former Vice President Joe Biden even stopped by to discuss the “cancer moonshot” he spent much of his last year in office working on, resulting in the passage of a $6.3 billion research bill. “I had one regret in making the decision not to run,” for president, Biden said, “and that was I would have loved to have been the president who presided over the end of cancer as we know it.”

A Saturday keynote at the Austin Convention Center by Jennifer Doudna, a co-discoverer of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology that is allowing humans for the first time to precision-edit DNA in cells, drew lines literally wrapping up and down stairwells. A packed house listened as Doudna explained the mechanics of her discovery in remarkable detail, for the largely non-technical audience.

In a Q&A session afterwards, guests mostly wanted to know whether CRISPR editing would lead to the “designer baby” dystopia long predicted by science fiction. Doudna assured them that this was nowhere near happening. But, she said, it’s important to start the ethical conversations now, so we’re ready when and if these modifications do become possible. And she added that CRISPR-based treatment for adults with sickle-cell disease—a devastating genetic illness—might become available soon.

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Meanwhile, Bolt Threads, a biotechnology company, released an innovative, bio-manufactured product ready for the market—the “first spider silk product ever available for purchase.” Rather than working directly with spiders, the company instead genetically modified bacteria to produce spinnable spider silk proteins, which have the potential to be both more sustainable and more versatile than existing textiles. The result was a necktie, priced at $314, which was nonetheless so popular that the company had to award the right to buy it to the winners of a lottery.

Diverse futures

Last year, women’s empowerment took center stage at SXSW, as attendees discussed The Elephant in the Valley, a report documenting workplace issues for women in tech. This year, amid wider debates about diversity and representation, discussions of diversity seemed to take on a broader scope.

At one wide-ranging panel at the Fast Company Grill, Moj Mahdara, CEO of Beautycon Media, discussed her platform’s appeal to an emerging group of gen Z digital natives interested in intersecting issues of gender and race. Richelieu Dennis of Sundial Brands discussed the Shea Moisture #BreakTheWalls campaign, which promoted the brand by highlighting the absurdity of separating products into “beauty” and “ethnic” aisles at retail. He reminded listeners that, demographically speaking, people of color are the new general market.

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FastCo Grill. Photo Credit: Erik Voake

Hyphen-Labs, a collective of women of color working at the intersection of creativity and technology, showed NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, an installation and VR experience that featured products intended to respond to the concerns and needs of women of color. Visitors encountered a visor by AB Screenwear that reflects unfriendly faces back on the viewer; a scarf by privacy artist Adam Harvey with a pattern designed to confuse face-recognition algorithms used in surveillance technology; and a pair of earrings by artist Michelle Cortese enabled with audio and video recording technology.

The centerpiece was a VR experience that immersed viewers in a futuristic beauty salon, where they were implanted with mind-expanding electrodes. The piece seemed to speak to the potential for technology to help individuals transcend limitations of all kinds.

Later in the conference, a group of artists gathered to discuss “Queering VR.” “Virtuality and queerness share common conceptual ground,” organizers noted. “They each destabilize what is natural/taken for granted by emphasizing the performed and experienced rather than what is ‘objectively real.’”

 

Noting the rise of a community of artists and technologists addressing questions of gender and its performance, artist Alison Bennett said that “queer tech” was “an idea whose time has come.” Noting that “there is no need to have a central or Cartesian perspective” in VR, artist and educator Liss LaFleur said that “in a weird way, everyone can perform queerness in VR.”

Dystopian activations

Some of the conference’s most-discussed activations struck an unsettling note. To promote the upcoming TV drama The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a totalitarian religious government, Hulu sent a group of red-clad women walking silently around downtown Austin, and Gizmodo declared that they were “creeping people out.”

American Gods at SXSW (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Starz)

For American Gods, a new show based on a fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, Starz installed a giant white buffalo, which towered over the conference and inspired countless selfies. American Gods, according to Starz, depicts a world in which “a different kind of war [is] brewing—one between Old Gods and New. The traditional Old Gods, with mythological roots from around the world, fear irrelevance as their believers die off or are seduced by the money, technology, and celebrity offered by the New Gods.” While less creepy than the silent handmaids, the installation still, clearly, was meant to strike a dystopian note with contemporary subtext.

Cyber-empathy

Cyberbullying and “trolling” came up repeatedly in Austin, as did the larger theme of “empathy.” A New Yorker piece by Om Malik published in November 2016 alleged that “Silicon Valley has an empathy vacuum,” and discussions at SXSW considered what might be done to address it.

The pop star Kesha talked about the need for women to “reclaim the internet,” sharing stories about how hateful online comments fueled an eating disorder that left her on the verge of having a stroke. “Criticism online used to tear me up. Then I realized you can’t make people you don’t know your higher power,” Kesha said. “I’m happiest when I’m present in my real life, not concerned with my online life.”

Refinery29's Amy Emmerich and Kesha Discuss Reclaiming the Internet - 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals
Refinery29 and Kesha “Reclaim Your Domain” Discussion at SXSW 2017with Refinery29's Amy Emmerich

Empathy Lab, a session hosted by Refinery29 and the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab, was billed as a “collaborative design fiction session” where attendees would “prototype solutions for the activation of empathy as an agent of social change in the production of new media types, such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, the Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence.”

The session involved a simple exercise with pen and paper, which invited attendees to pose the same question to their neighbors five times in a row: “Think about a time you were bullied. What do you wish someone would have done to help?” The results, which allowed strangers to get to know intimate sides of each other very quickly, proved that despite much discussion of VR as an “empathy engine,” advanced technology isn’t a necessary or sufficient ingredient to help us understand each other better.