Austin powers: 10 trends for 2014 from SXSWi
South By Southwest Interactive is now much more than a technology festival. The thousands of delegates who come to the heart of Texas are searching for new ideas and perspectives
Light brigade: Austin during SXSWi. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty
Light brigade: Julian Assange, who spoke via videolink. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Light brigade: Neil deGrasse Tyson, who spoke at SXSWi. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty
Light brigade: Lena Dunham, one of the speakers at SXSWi. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty
Light brigade: Google Glass no longer turns heads at SXSWi. Photograph: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
If you stop for a moment, say by the escalators in the cavernous convention centre in Austin, Texas, and try to take it all in, it makes no sense. The width and depth of what is happening at the South By Southwest Interactive festival – aka SXSWi – appear impossible. The annual event attracts thousands of people every March. Surely the interactive umbrella can’t cover everything?
In the space of an hour last Sunday afternoon, for example, you could have gone from a brilliant interview with the US football coach Jürgen Klinsmann to a smart presentation on the future of genetics by Anne Wojcicki, via a discussion on robotics, an interview with House o f Cards and Social Network producer Dana Brunetti, and a panel on linguistics for social technologies. Take another path through the thousands of talks, interviews, panel discussions and workshops and you’d have another, equally eclectic span of choices.
Of course, the perception is that SXSWi is just about new technology. It’s supposed to be where people go to fawn over the new Twitter or talk about code (or even in code). The tech side are still here in spades, in their blazer-and-jeans uniforms – especially at the Accelerator strand, where promising start-ups are in competition – but they’re not the only tribe at this gathering.
At SXSWi it’s the event itself that provides the link between these disparate topics. It all coheres because it’s happening in this great, laid-back, weird, alternative-friendly city in the heart of Texas.
SXSW has two other clear strands – the equally enormous music and film festivals – but SXSWi is the one where convergence and connections run riot and one thing nonchalantly bleeds into something else. It’s the place where ideas and technologies come to be discussed, poked and disseminated by a curious, fascinating bunch of people over a long weekend.
Here, then, are 10 ideas, highlights and trends from four days of SXSWi.
1 – Privacy: That some of the festival’s big set pieces are provided by video link says much about the prominence of the privacy issue at SXSWi. As the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange notes during his interview from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, national-security reporters are a new kind of refugee; he refers to the journalists Glenn Greenwald (who also appears via video link, from Brazil), Laura Poitras and Sarah Harrison. Edward Snowden is also a guest on the big screen, via a half-dozen proxies in the interests of his security. Snowden’s conversation with Ben Wizner and Chris Soghoian is riveting for many reasons, not least because we haven’t often heard directly from the NSA whistleblower. Snowden says he chose to speak at SXSWi to get to its techie audience, because “they’re the folks who really fix things and who can enforce our rights through technological standards”.
2 – Television: Lena Dunham’s Girls premiered at SXSW in 2012, and this year she’s back for a keynote conversation about her “ferocious” work rate, sexism, ratings, Twitter and more. Since SXSW’s dalliance with Girls , TV has become a growing strand at the festival, and panel discussions feature various garlanded showrunners and producers. There are also some premieres of upcoming shows, chiefly Penny Dreadful (the Showtime series that was shot in Ireland) and Silicon Valley . The latter, the work of the local film-maker Mike Judge, of Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill , is a well-judged satire of the tech industry. Judge couldn’t have picked a better place to showcase the series’ first two episodes: the whole audience is au fait with the Silicon Valley world of the show, which features the likes of start-up Pied Piper, venture capitalist Peter Gregory and the Google-like Hooli.
3 – Sports: Who said SXSW is just for geeks? One of the most interesting new elements at SXSW is a sports strand, with a welter of panel discussions and interviews. It shows that jocks can be as geeky and nerdy as anyone else, with wide-ranging conversations on using data to find young athletes – one talent scout talks about hiring private detectives to profile the youngsters and their families – the intersection between brands and sports, and other topics. The bulk are about the major US sports, such as baseball and basketball, but there’s scope for expansion.
4 – Pop science: He may not be a stand-up comedian, but Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson has them rolling in the aisles at a brilliant keynote interview conducted by the Scientific American editor Christie Nicholson. An astrophysicist, TV presenter – he’s the face of the new version of the Cosmos series – commentator and author, Tyson has a fantastic knack for explaining science to a mainstream audience by telling great yarns and tales. From the tooth fairy and curiosity to dinosaurs, space travel and scepticism, Tyson makes you want to find out lots more about his subject.
5 – The next Twitter: Twitter’s coming of age at SXSW in 2007 is both a blessing and a curse. It means SXSW’s name is inextricably linked with the social-media network, but everyone now expects a new Twitter to come along every year. That’s not going to happen, but tech evangelists, tyre-kickers, venture capitalists and chancers still come in search of social-media gold. As a result, the rooms hosting the Accelerator competition for start-ups are jammed all weekend, so perhaps the winners, which include the Cork-based identity-verification company Trustev, are the ones to watch. Other possibilties include Secret, an app that allows you to post anonymous messages from your phone, or PonoPlayer, the new high-quality digital music player from Neil Young, which he launched at the festival.
6 – We are the robots – and the future of work: It’s a very good year at SXSW for robots and fans of robots. As Autodesk’s chief executive, Carl Bass, asserts, there’s a good future for machines and robots, with the latter set to outnumber humans in 20 years. This will mean an end to many jobs – and, Bass notes, will necessitate a new way of thinking to deal with the economic and employment changes ahead. Bass, who calls himself a tech optimist, believes we have nothing to fear: “With our creativity and imagination, we will find harmony with the robots.”
7 – Been there, done that and got the (wearable tech) T-shirt: You don’t bother to look up any more when someone walks by at SXSW sporting a pair of Google Glass spectacles, because they’re everywhere. Wearable-tech ideas form the basis for many panels and discussions. There’s Sundar Pichai of Google saying that developers are just scratching the surface when it comes to wearable devices and predicting that we’re about to see a lot more than smart watches and health and fitness trackers. Wearable-tech devices on show at SXSW included the Moff wrist device, which allows children to add sound effects to their games, and an augmented-reality motorcycle helmet from Skully Helmets, which was a big hit at the Accelerator programme. Judging by the plethora of wearable devices on trade-show stands – and the interest they’re getting – this is a trend that is certain to accelerate.
8 – Media naval-gazing: One of SXSWi’s growing areas is media – hardly surprising given the huge number of journalists in attendance. This year the ESPN recruits Nate Silver and Bill Simmons talk about the growth of their personal brands (FiveThirtyEight and Grantland, respectively), while the New York Times media writer David Carr interviews the Upworthy boss Eli Pariser about that site’s use of content-filtering algorithms to find the stories with the most traction across social media.
9 – I’m with the brand: Brands are visible at every turn in Austin, from sponsored bicycles to offers of tacos in return for downloading an app to your smartphone. But there are also a lot of interesting discussions about the interaction between consumer and brand, and how this relationship is changing. One panel looks at the way Lego fans have engaged with the brand; a lot of attention is also given to the fact that consumers are often far more sussed when it comes to social-media interaction than the people who work for the brands. The question here, though, is just how far a brand goes in terms of involving that community.
10 – Social good: The time given over to issues, activities and discussions around social good and social ventures has been growing. This year’s mix includes panels on gun-control campaigners instigating digital campaigns to combat the NRA, Change.org’s Ben Rattray on how technology can change businesses for the better, and a panel on how big data can spread social change.
Next year’s SXSWi runs from March 13th to 17th; sxsw.com