SXSW is well-known as the launchpad for many technology start-ups like Twitter, FourSquare and Meerkat. While there are fewer breakout launches these days, the tech talk was still abundant with panel after panel diving deep on AI, VR, AR and an entire alphabet soup of acronyms changing the media, communications and computing landscape. One thing that stuck out this year was that conversations around love, empathy, creativity and humanity rose above the cacophony around speeds and feeds. This SXSW seemed more about emotions than emojis.
A Tone of Empathy:
Opening speaker Senator Cory Booker set the festival’s tone when he said, “I am one of these people that really believes that we are all here today as a physical manifestation of a larger conspiracy of love. We are a nation that was not founded because we all look alike, spoke the same language or prayed alike. And in fact, we know, we’ve had ugly divisions in our country, fearsome conflicts, but there has been a spirit that has still found a way to reach beyond that and to manifest a glorious triumphant love.” He believes entrepreneurship and technology provide the greatest hope for taking back America, even as “we’re losing truth, we’re losing authenticity, and we’re losing the soul of our politics.”
The trend continued with CNN’s Van Jones reprising his program The Messy Truth from the main stage and told stories of the countless disenfranchised people he met as he toured “red states” to get a better understanding of the division in the American electorate. Saying he spoke to “some of the most beautiful people he’d ever met.” Jones believes what we need now is more love and understanding among each other – not tribalism and a turned back. He believes divided groups must work together for solutions and he asked those on both sides of the debate, “Can you call people up, instead of calling people out?”
Among the Stars:
There were talks about the rebirth of supersonic travel and mini scooters and hover boards buzzing around talking about innovations that will power mobility in the future but none so inspiring as when “Moon Man” and famed former Astronaut Buzz Aldrin took the stage. His mic drop moment was when he said “We explore or we expire. That’s about it.” This was part of his push to champion a manned mission to Mars within the next twenty years. A theme echoed by others at the conference.
Ray Kurzweil, author, computer scientist, inventor and futurist is well known for his theory of the Singularity, and at SXSW he stood by his prediction that machines will reach human consciousness by 2029. “I agree it will take 40 years at today’s rate of progress to reach the Singularity. But we’ll make 40 years of progress in 13 years because the rate keeps accelerating,” he explained. But he maintains that machines getting smarter should help humanity, not harm it, and he believes that creativity is an aspiration for technology as well as humanity.
His presence on the stage was further “humanized” by his daughter, Amy Kurzweil, a writer, cartoonist and teacher who was debuting her graphic memoir “Flying Couch,” which tells the story of her grandmother’s Holocaust survival and how her Bube’s strength flows through the generations. Amy also spoke about the creative side of her father, who is an accomplished pianist that invented the first piece of piano music independently composed by a computer and developed early synthesizers that transformed the way music is made and recorded.
Big Brands Seek Human Connection:
SXSW is known as the domain of scrappy start-ups with quirky fun names but this year the most impressive brand activations were staged by large tech and media companies who have the products and resources to mount epic events.
Tech and media giants paved the streets of Austin. Using HoloLens technology at National Geographic’s “Further: Base Camp,” attendees got inside Albert Einstein’s head in support of the new scripted show Genius by exploring a zooming train and glowing planets. A digitized chalkboard powered by a robotic arm used Einstein’s handwriting and actual mathematical formulas to draw people’s faces. The activation also featured an AR enabled photo gallery of famed National Geographic photographers. I also learned how Nat Geo was able to “grow by letting go” and giving their 105 photographers direct access to their Instagram feed and allowing them to post themselves. This action demonstrated authenticity and grew their followers on the platform to a staggering 73 million.
Casper, the Standard Hotel’s One Night app, and Tesla partnered up to delight attendees by allowing them to book a room at the Austin Motel or reserve a 45-minute “refresh room” to nap, shower, or just recharge their devices. All rooms featured Casper mattresses plus milk and cookies, with Telsa vehicles providing guests with transport back to the festival.
The Internet’s Third Wave:
A fascinating discussion titled “Navigating a Changing and Connected World,” further reinforced the lens of advancing technology through real life, human application. Revolution CEO Steve Case believes that the Third Wave of the Internet will take more than Silicon Valley to achieve its full potential – last year, he noted 78 percent of U.S. VC funding went to just three states. He also added that 90 percent went to men, which has to change.
Case’s 2016 book, “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future” explains that while the First Wave, built the Internet’s foundation, the Second Wave encompasses the search and social capabilities that have been layered on top of it, and the Third Wave is about transforming “real world” industries like health care, manufacturing and retail.
Fellow panelist Beth Comstock of GE describes the brand as “Digital Industrial,” which synchs up with Case’s idea that the physical operations of healthcare, energy and industrial manufacturing companies (among others) intersect with data and analytics for machine learning. Comstock said nurses at many hospitals spend 20 to 25 percent of their time just looking for things, and challenged attendees to consider how amazing it would be if their time were freed up to focus more on care.
From panels to parties, SXSW is an experience that informs, excites and occasionally overwhelms. It has advanced from being a showcase of new technologies to a living human experience where creativity, human problem solving and entertainment are mixed together in Austin’s petri dish – along with tacos… lots of food truck tacos!
I think above all else, SXSW codified the modern communications blueprint. One that fuses heart and emotion with brand purpose to both delight consumers and solve problems for human beings.