For the third year in a row, Socially Aware co-editor Aaron Rubin and I attended SXSW Interactive, which arguably has become the premier annual gathering for the global tech community. But this year, SXSW Interactive had a very different vibe to it than in the prior two years.
In the past, a spirit of boundless optimism infused the event. A sense existed that there is no problem that could not be solved through technological innovation.
Indeed, at SXSW Interactive last year, President Obama—who was rapturously received by the audience—touched on this “can do” spirit in his keynote address:
“So the reason I’m here really is to recruit all of you. It’s to say to you as I’m about to leave office, how can we start coming up with new platforms, new ideas, new approaches across disciplines and across skill sets to solve some of the big problems that we’re facing today.”
What a difference a year can make. Perhaps it was due in part to the weather—overcast, wet and cold—but a pessimistic mood seemed to hang over this year’s edition of SXSW Interactive.
For example, many of the panel discussions this year dealt with the dark underbelly of social media and other emerging technologies. There were panels on the social media-fueled proliferation of fake news; politically motivated hacking; the rise of anti-Semitism and hate speech online; and even the use of social media by law enforcement to monitor social activists.
A sense of “what have we wrought” permeated several of these panel sessions. The tech community created all of these astonishing tools, platforms and other technologies to transform the world for the better—yet panelists lamented that these same technologies are increasingly being co-opted by white nationalists and other extremists to promote their messages to a wider audience.
Also indicative of how things had changed since 2016: The most sought-after invites in Austin were not for events hosted by tech giants such as Google or Facebook, but by news organizations such as CNN and the New York Times.
Amidst the gloom, there were many panel sessions that would have been right at home at last year’s festival. Every SXSW Interactive attendee has a different takeaway as to the hot emerging technologies based on what sessions he or she was able to get into, but I saw a number of fascinating panels on the rapid development and adoption of artificial intelligence (if only I had a dollar for every time the term “machine learning” was uttered in Austin—I’d take all those dollars and, well, invest in some trendy AI start-up). Fintech and healthcare IT developments also seemed to be generating a big buzz this year.
There were moments when the old optimism resurfaced. Former Vice President Joe Biden showed up to encourage the SXSW community to turn its sights to the battle to defeat cancer, noting that “you can make a gigantic impact.” And even during the downbeat panel session on fake news, several of the panelists observed that AI and other emerging technologies are already being enlisted to combat fake news. Maybe everything will work out all right after all.