When the snows of February turn to the rains of March, I, like a modern pilgrim, journey to SXSW Interactive to recharge, gain a fresh perspective on the world, and glimpse the future of digital communications.
Every year the experience is a little different. When Shwen Gwee and I produced PharmFresh.TV, I spent my time stalking the hallways and meeting rooms looking for entrepreneurs and thought leaders to interview. Back then, everyone was ebullient about how their apps, wearables or data analytics platforms were going to revolutionize healthcare.
A few years ago, privacy was the topic on everyone’s lips. Streamed discussions with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden spurred lengthy in-person discussions on the balcony of the Intercontinental about the security of private data. That led Amanda Sheldon and I to create a SXSW panel the following year on privacy, HIPAA and health data with Jane Sarasohn-Kahn and Manny Hernandez.
And this year? What was the big theme in 2017?
Well, after years in which SXSW was about how technology was going to damn-well improve the world for the better, I was pleasantly surprised to find some of the cock-sure conceit set aside in favor of introspection. Instead of hubris, SXSW 2017 was more about the long-term implications of technology on the social fabric.
Let me explain.
In the wake of Brexit and the US election, it is clear that while social media and digital platforms hold great promise, they have also reinforced tribalism between different social, economic and political factions.
The result? An online world that can be divisive, dehumanizing and that brings out the worst in us.
To be sure, this is nothing new. For years, media observers have worried that while online communications have the potential to drive positive social change, people are easily ensnared by marketers and trapped by the very addictiveness of new technology to become detached from the real world.
In fact, at my very first SXSW I was blown away by a discussion led by Douglas Rushkoff who pushed the then contrarian idea that instead of liberating, technology was in fact enslaving us, making us captive to alerts, pings and the 24-7 always-on-world. (He then gave 10 useful rules that we could apply to break this vicious cycle – rules that still apply today, I might add.)
But it isn’t all doom and gloom.
Alongside the negative, I encountered much optimism about how we, as users, organizations, or advocates, can leverage technology to create a better world. OK – perhaps not a “citty upon a hill” but certainly an environment that can serve our better nature.
The defining moment this year was a session provocatively entitled “Will Grace Survive the Digital Age?” which examined how people — and technology companies — can enable us to once again move through the world with grace.
Sarah Kaufman, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic, framed the discussion by defining “grace” as a blend of physical grace, social grace and spiritual grace – grace exemplified by people like Mohammad Ali, JFK and Rosa Parks.
Fellow panelist, Caresse Giles, explained that while the internet is “graceless” because it cannibalizes our attention with so many distractions, it is a “planet that we have just started to colonize.” With this in mind, we need to look at this brave new world, and develop a new set of rules to guide our colonization.
There were a lot of sessions at SXSW this year about politics. A lot. And it seemed that the New York Times was EVERYWHERE. I had to go see at least one of these sessions, and so in the end I decided to catch Executive Editor Dean Baquet discussed how the paper was covering politics in the age of a Twitterer-in-Chief.
Though POTUS continues to use the sobriquet “failing” whenever he mentions The Gray Lady, Baquet took the President’s criticism in stride. He calmly described how the paper would not react to every tweet to rise above the online chatter and instead focus on what they did best: investigate and probe. The Times is therefore beefing up its politics coverage in the belief that despite (or perhaps because of) the growth of “fake news,” people increasingly seeing value in investigative reportage.
Baquet implied that the days in which people flock to emotionally charged and unsubstantiated stories, posts and comments may be numbered – and that the “honorable pursuit of the truth” that defines journalism will once again be held in high regard.
As evidence, Baquet related how the Times had seen an uptick in subscribers since the election, and that every disparaging tweet from President Trump would see people flock to sign-up for the NYTimes paywall.
It was a reassuring moment — and one that cheered the former reporter in me. However, this optimism came with some caveats, and Baquet did admit that the next two years will be crucial, not just for the New York Times, but for journalists everywhere, from ProPublica to their “competitor” the Washington Post.
Every year, I go to sessions to see how different non-profits and advocacy groups leverage digital channels to drive political and social change. In years past, the Social Good track has not just provided inspiration, but has spurred the imagination to seek out new ways to tap into people’s passions to drive real social change.
Executive Director Rashad Robinson outlined how the organization leveraged digital connections and personal passions to bring people into consciousness around social justice issues, and then activates them to take action.
The key, according to Rashad, is storytelling. Stories resonate when they create a shared experience. When people identify with the issue at hand they are then likely to buy into the idea that there was a problem to address. For instance, during the Fall election, Color of Change encouraged voters to turn out on a local level to elect district attorneys who would be more sympathetic to their positions.
But doing isn’t an easy task.
These are only a few examples of the kinds of conversations, insights and knowledge from this year’s SXSW. Yes – there was (as always) tons of cool technology such as virtual reality. There were discussions of big data and AI, and new, emerging companies to ogle. CRISPR, for instance, prompted a lot of conversations about the ethics behind genetic modification, and there was a fascinating presentation about creating flexible MRI machines that could potentially help upload information to people’s brains, and so on and so forth.
But the biggest surprise was how much SXSW had matured over the past few years. Stories about how people, media organizations, brands, and advocates could leverage digital channels and social media to make a positive change provided inspiration and optimism in the midst of this toxic online environment we now inhabit. Those who truly want to make a difference look beyond technology and remember that at the core we are human and that the society we create is ours to shape.