SXSW Interactive: 10 talking points from the weekend

The best apps, "entertainment debt", disrupting the church and how to live forever: here are the main trends from Austin's tech festival


This is the year when you’d be hard-pressed to find a topic that couldn’t find space under the SXSW umbrella. While tech has been a SXSW (South by Southwest) constant for many years, the truism that every venture is now a tech venture seems to have been the spur for the conference’s ever-expanding size. There are now complete conference strands dedicated to health, design, food, sports, journalism, government, film, coding and oodles more.

Music remains a major selling point, with its own festival and a not-quite-as-carefully tended conference, but the super-sized nature of SXSW owes much to what happens before the musicians arrive in town (US immigration officers permitting).

As you’d expect, things get more interesting at SXSW around the edges. When strands and discussions begin to blur and blend, fascinating themes and trends begin to emerge, especially with the thousands of makers and doers, talkers and thinkers, characters and chancers in the city for the duration.

Here are 10 that come to mind after a couple of days on Planet SXSW.

The new Twitter is not in Austin

The heat generated by Twitter’s breakout success here in 2007 meant a couple of years of eejits going to Texas to pimp their terrible apps, and the hype over products such as GroupMe, Yobongo and RockLobby never amounted to much. There now seems to be a lot more reality in the space. Poke your head into the Accelerator Pitch room, for example, and you’ll hear from start-ups who are more rounded and realistic with their offerings than was once the case, such as the Thimble electronics training course and the SPLT car-pooling app.

Is there an election on?

Politicians and SXSW have become dancing partners in recent years and 2017 continues the waltz. Cory Booker is a big hit, the New Jersey senator saying all the right things for this particular audience. Former vice-president Joe Biden uses his appearance to urge people to join his campaign to tackle cancer, while there is a strong political edge to a discussion on transportation policies for smart cities and an excellent conversation on the future of policing, which doesn’t pull any punches about race and community relations.

Post-Trump stress disorder

It’s a very rare panel at SXSW 2017 that doesn’t reference the victory of Donald J Trump in passing – he is even mentioned at a panel about the future of breakfast. This conference has always been a liberal-leaning affair, and panels on activism, media coverage of the election, online extremism and surveillance all highlight the fact that you’re unlikely to see Trump ever emulate his predecessor’s appearance at SXSW last year.

The most meta SXSW film ever

Local resident Terrence Malick’s new flick Song To Song is the first big event screening of the week. Starring Michael Fassbender and Ryan Gosling and set in the Austin music scene with footage shot at SXSW and Austin City Limits, Malick’s fifth work in six years continues his recent run of so-so movies. Far better is Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s thrilling heist movie, with Ansel Elgort as a getaway driver working for crime boss Kevin Spacey, which uses a pulsating, thumping soundtrack to punctuate the action throughout.

The subtle art of branding

Brands typically approach SXSW with a sledgehammer in one hand and a megaphone in the other. But adding to the noise is not how to cut through it, as those promoting the upcoming Hulu TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale show. Their ploy to have dozens of veiled handmaids walk silently around the city generates more attention than handing out promo tat or paying a fortune to have someone famous attend a party. Other TV and film shows doing a similar decent job include The Mummy with a fantastic VR exhibit, the Prison Break escape room, and the giant bull plugging Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

What the heck are you doing at SXSW?

You never know who you’ll run into in Austin in March. This year’s guest list includes a bishop from Navan and a gaggle of museum curators. The former is Paul Tighe, the Vatican’s adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, who is speaking about disruption and innovation in the church. “Maybe for the church, this world has disturbed us, has disrupted a lot of our ways of forming community,” Tighe says. “It’s making us think again about how to do our business.” For museum operators, SXSW is an opportunity to discuss the place of physical collections in an increasingly digital world and how various communities can and should use museum assets to further their own work.

Entertainment debt

Our favourite buzz term at SXSW was “entertainment debt”. It refers to the number of TV shows you have saved on your to-watch list and which you may never get around to viewing. Acouple of panels tackled just what a consumer move to binge-watching means for TV makers. While we might be living in a golden age for quality TV shows, the problem of infinite choice means many of these shows might not necessarily get the profile and audience numbers they deserve. For those charged with marketing the new shows, it’s a tough gig, especially as word of mouth is the one tool that works best with new audiences.

The new Austin

The ability to use SXSW to flex some soft power has not gone unnoticed and various city and country delegations came to town to peacock their credentials. Lisbon made a strong case for new tech companies to consider the Portuguese capital; Germany made a lot of noise about its cool cachet; and Brazil’s trade show stand and interactive tent pushed the best of that country’s business and culture. Meanwhile, a panel about Detroit showed just how far that city has come in the last couple of years in terms of attracting people. It still has an edge, the panellists noted, though that’s now something many visitors want and expect.

The media talks about the media

From a conversation about the “failing” New York Times to Gawker founder Nick Denton licking his wounds over his defamation wrestling bout with Hulk Hogan, there is plenty of media omphaloskepsis on the menu. Perhaps the best media-focused session is with CNN host Jake Tapper which sees him talk candidly about how his job is to be “a pain in the ass” to all, regardless of party colours. “I’m not a member of the resistance,” he says, “I’m a member of the media and we’re trying to hold this administration accountable. I hope we stay that way now and in the next administration because that’s where we are supposed to be.”

Bots, biology and brains

The Reimagining Old Age panel looks at how aging can even be disrupted, with studies and papers on how medicines will soon exist that allow us to live productive and comfortable lives for much longer than is possible now. A fascinating discussion on the sports strand looks at how a focus by coaches on increasing an athlete’s brain potential – “training from the neck up” – can improve performance. Unfortunately, the session on bots replacing bureaucracy is cancelled, so perhaps there is hope for civil servants after all.

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