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SXSW15 Redux: What happens at SX spreads everywhere

Susan Etlinger

First, let’s get this out of the way: every year, SXSW regulars say the festival has jumped the shark. It’s too big, there are too many panels, and they’re poorly curated. It’s impossible to get anywhere. Too many lines, too many wristbands, too few taxis, too damn many cards, pens, pins, stickers that will inevitably end up in landfill. Breakfast tacos become a temporary food group. And there’s always a contingent who mistake the festival for Spring Break and leave their trash, noise and bodily fluids everywhere.

BruceSterling_JohnShapelyAt the same time, certain things happen at SXSW that rarely happen elsewhere: hallway/street/in line for barbeque conversations that build or change businesses; serendipitous combinations of technologies; new and old friends settle into the Driskill or the Four Seasons or a corner at a party somewhere at 1:00 am and plan out the innovations that will drive next year’s technology agenda.

From the conversations I had, it was generally agreed to be a transitional year. Social media, long the darling of SX, was significantly less prominent, replaced by the maker movement, collaborative economy, IoT, privacy and surveillance, cognitive computing/AI, digital ethics, and data, data, everywhere.

Sure, people were Yik Yakking and Meerkating away, but the tone of the conversation was a bit more sober, at least among the people I interacted with. Meerkat in particular raised the spectre of Google Glass, specifically because of its privacy implications. The Beacon sensors throughout the conference logged the movements of thousands of people in an effort to better understand attendee traffic patterns and preferences, although a lot of people I spoke with were unaware that they were being tracked, a sign of cognitive dissonance if there ever was one.

I counted 21 panels that featured “privacy” in the title (121 that included it in the description), and five with “ethics”, (93 that included it in the description.)  “Surveillance” clocked in at five, with 38 total results. The panel on DARPA was so over-full that many, many people were turned away, while other panels (as usual) had barely enough attendees to fill the first row.

Overall, it felt as though the zeitgeist was catching up to Albert Einstein’s assertion, so many decades ago, that “it has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” I wasn’t able to attend as many sessions as I wanted (who is?), but the ones I attended were terrific. Parry Aftab, CEO of WiredTrust, and Mat Honan, bureau chief of Buzzfeed, proposed a framework for privacy by design that seeks to embed privacy into business practices and operational processes. Not sexy, not even cool (yet), but so, so needed. In that panel, Ann Cavoukian (via video) rejected the notion of privacy as a zero-sum game: we don’t have to trade competitiveness for ethics. To me, that was a breath of fresh air.

The panel I participated on, “Emerging Issues in Digital Ethics,” (hashtag: #ethicscode) was moderated by the brilliant Don Heider, Founding Dean and Professor at the School of Communication at Loyola University Chicago, and Founder of the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy there. My co-panelists, Brian Abamont from State Farm (speaking on his own behalf) and Erin Reilly, Managing Director & Research Fellow, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, covered everything from privacy to cyberbullying, Gamergate to doxxing to scraping. There was so much ground to cover, and yet the panel started to feel more like an open conversation than a transfer of “knowledge” (at least to me). The audience was as or more fluent with these topics as we were; we’re all still figuring it out.

A final thought: every year I insist that it’s my last SXSW, and every year I break down, pack my comfiest shoes and attend. If there’s any takeaway this year, it’s that SX continues to be a pretty good indicator of the tech zeitgeist. I’d love to see some of my data science friends go through the schedule and do an analysis of trending topics on the schedule from year to year. With all our obsession about data, wouldn’t that be an interesting benchmark to have?