5 focus areas for this year’s SXSW festival

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Advertising – SXSW 2017: Anticipating the good, the bad and the Donald

Dan Machen highlights the key topics he expects to surface at this year’s South by Southwest festival.


This isn’t your average conference. At SXSW, on a good day, you can see speakers such as Tim Berners-Lee, and Elon Musk. Last year, we were even graced with the company of sitting President Barack Obama.

The level of insight and debate at SXSW is next level. Obama issued a challenge to the global tech community, saying they should refocus away from trivialities and onto serious societal issues: “It’s easier to order a pizza than it is to vote.”

How poignant this seems now. Obama’s point focused attention on the fact that we aren’t particularly using technology to the betterment of ourselves, or others, through its mass application. Instead we’re driven by immediate gratification and venture capital revenue-extraction – both of which do little for self-reflection, or the improvement of mankind.

For brands and agencies looking for the tech threads that will inform culture from SXSW 2017, anticipate the first eddies of a turning tide in tech. There will be introspection on what it means to be human amid technology and how we need to mature in our application of it.
We will see the good – with applications in health tech such as gene editing and more quantified digital behaviour. We will see the bad – with the fear of AI taking jobs. And we will see the ugly – with specific focus on how tech is being used to propagate ‘alternative facts’ and fake news.
So with many talks being streamed or reported online, what are the talks to watch out for? Here are my five focus areas:

1. Artificial smartness (AI)
Many headlines play to the SXSW crowds around the theme of ‘Robots will take our jobs, lives, wives etc.’ But I want to hear a balanced view on what human intelligence plus artificial intelligence looks like – ‘AI on the Horizon: Challenges, Directions, Futures’  is a session worth checking out.

2. Technology and brains
HeyHuman focuses a lot on how we can use neuroscience to make communications easier to process amid digital lives, so I am fascinated to find new insights in the field. This is not only about ad effectiveness though, I’m also interested in how people start to use tech to manage impulsive subconscious responses. ‘This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on Ads’ is one session I really want to take in.

3. Blended realities – (VR, AR, MR, RR)
Wearable glasses to view digital content overlaid on reality continue to grow, and so do the two-letter acronyms. Virtual reality (VR) is completely immersive. Augmented Reality (AR) – like Pokemon Go – adds a layer to reality. Mixed reality (MR) adds a layer to reality, but places it in context (e.g. on a table surface). Real reality (RR), is actual reality – we think. Spanning gaming, film, digital and education, I am keen to explore how VR et al. can change the way we see the world – and not just in isolation: The Social, Sharing and Streaming Future of VR.

4. Purposeful tech
At the leading edge of the transformative potential of technology is bio-tech and health. At a basic level, there are opportunities around responsible human-centric experience design and new applications that increase mindfulness over distraction. At the far horizon, there is bio-editing – treating the genome as code to be optimised. I look forward to hearing Jennifer Dounda’s Keynote on our future selves.

5. Humane use of tech
It would be kind to say the initial reaction to Donald Trump’s first weeks in office have been mixed. It would be accurate to say they have been tumultuous. As per ‘The Donald’s’ use of Twitter to take his alternative facts to the nation and his courting of the tech titans of Silicon Valley, it is clearer than ever that tech does and will play a major role in shaping culture as industries like media, entertainment or even politics. I think with sessions such as Towards More Humane Tech, we will see many ‘Trump talks’ focused on the collective responsibility around checks and balances on ‘alternative facts’ and fake news.

As published in the Guardian on Wednesday 8 March 2017


Dan Machen
Dan Machen

Director of Innovation and closet Jedi

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