Taking on tech like a human! Reflecting on key concepts from SXSW 2017

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SXSW17: the human and humane approach to tech

Every March, the world’s leading thinkers converge on Austin, Texas to gaze into the crystal ball that is South by Southwest – the world’s leading tech and innovation conference. Along with 70,000 other creative pilgrims, marketers come to Austin to witness insight and inspiration taken into orbit.

Lucky enough to call this my fifth year at SXSW, I have seen the ups and downs of our global love affair with technology. From the honeymoon period of 2013 – when Google Glass came online – it felt like our job was just to get out of tech’s way. Then there was the bad patch – when Ed Snowden’s exposé of the dark arts of the NSA’s bulk data collection caused many to blub into their BBQ over the death of privacy. With recovery over the next few years, 2017 felt like an acceptance of our tech-led lives albeit with an awareness of the totalitarian potential of it. This grey perspective was informed by two things – it was given a ‘Trump Bump’ by the use of ‘fake news’ and micro targeting in the US election, also we perceived a turning tide of awareness regards digital distraction.

Bruce Sterling, a local author, who closes the festival every year really framed it for me when he said: “Privacy and security – there isn’t any. Even the CIA doesn’t have any. Putin might have some.” This sense of being in a ‘post privacy’ world was echoed a lot. That doesn’t mean we are ready yet to advocate tech without a ‘dead man’s handle’, far from it. Speaking further on AI making people redundant, Sterling said it was unlikely people will just stand around. He said “that’s a kind of moral cowardice. Using tech as an excuse to ignore the coming interests of future generations.”

This was for me the frame of SXSW 2017 – we just need to get on with tech, but with a growing consciousness of making our application it more human and  from a motivation point of view more humane. So with this in mind, what really stood out at SXSW 2017?

Artificial smartness (AI) – with a heady mix of crowd pleasing headlines such as ‘Robots will take our jobs, lives, wives etc.’ Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks gave a great overview of the festival and suggested what Human Intelligence plus Artificial Intelligence really looks like. Robots will, for sure, make a greater impact on commerce via machine learning and the increasing automation of interfaces through chatbots, Amazon Echo-like tech and robots. Sterling suggested we will indeed see some form of UBI (universal basic income) for those made redundant by tech, but that people won’t just stand around – they will move diagonally into other pursuits. Here are just three of his 11 hypotheses about what people will do – some humane, some less so.

The academy – universities everybody learns. The bones and the brains of this is already there. Human beings work and research in learning communes on tenure.

Take shelter in religion instead – no competition as robots are all atheists. “All jihad all the time.”

Hospitals and spas – all in the business of looking after redundant human flesh.

Blended Realities – virtual reality and augmented reality – with VR and AR experiences spanning marketing, film and education, ‘blended realities’ were a major theme this year. Pokemon Go AR was seen as informing the future of marketing with platforms like Snatch. And at the less humane end of the spectrum, Will Roper, the Director of the US’s Strategic Capabilities at the Pentagon, said as a model, Pokemon could be the future of warfare. (In terms of mass co-ordination of groups who aren’t located together.) Finally, the role of projection in layering digital content on top of physical objects was also evident. There were several ‘escape room’ experiences from HBO, made all the more ‘human’ by blending physical and digital challenges themed brilliantly across Silicon Valley, Veep and Game of Thrones. Tactile plus virtual leads to better encoding in memory as people engage with it as something that happened to them, versus something they saw virtually.

Brain-friendly creative – at HeyHuman, we focus very much on the freshest ways to make neuroscience applicable to marketing by making the complexities of it easy to grasp. An excellent talk that did just this was ‘pre-suasion’. The author of the book of the same name – Robert Cialdini – gave the example of a furniture store that primed people with clouds on their home page – more expensive furniture sales increased significantly. Showing people an image of pennies on the landing page conversely made inexpensive furniture spike. The take-out here is that the most important thing you can do before you get to your message is to think about what people see just before your message

The Humane Use of Tech – with Donald Trump using Twitter to take ‘alternative facts’ to the masses, it was clearer than ever that tech plays a major role in shaping media, entertainment and politics. Yasmin Green, the head of research and development at Jigsaw, a tech incubator inside Google parent company Alphabet, was the bemused interviewer of two purveyors of fake news including Jestin Coler, who attracted half a million shares with three days before the election with a fictitious story about an FBI agent investigating the Clintons being murdered. Green’s keynote was one of many talks bringing the collective responsibility around ‘fake news’ to the fore – especially around programmatic and ‘micro-targeting’ in social media. The negative side of this extends to UK marketing, with the Guardian’s Hamish Nicklin highlighting that programmatic placement could be fuelling fake news.

As published on Tuesday 28th March in the Guardian



Dan Machen
Dan Machen

Director of Innovation and closet Jedi

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