The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: My take-aways from SxSW 2015

First times are always special. Going back to South by after my first time two years ago was then a good way to test whether the magic of South by was due to my taking part for the first time or if it truly is part of the DNA of the event. For certain I wasn’t disappointed! Actually, going back to South by makes it easier to focus on what you are really interested in while soaking in the very special atmosphere of the festival.


Back at South by to moderate, learn and network

This time my colleague Alexandra and I were invited to speak at the Interactive part of the festival about World Leaders on Twitter: What They Can Teach Us. Our session was on 13 March, the first day of the event, so we were able to enjoy the rest of the festival without thinking about our session.

I was surprised that the logistics of our session wasn’t totally under control, which from attending SxSW isn’t the impression you get as a participant. We had made it very clear that we were going to have a speaker skyping in, but not only did our laptop not have Skype, it wouldn’t even connect with the videoprojector. In the end, we made it work, but I can’t emphasize enough the need to prepare well in advance and be ready for all kinds of alternatives.

The session went well, with less people than expected, but who stayed until the end and asked lots of relevant questions. I was quite shocked that so many people just walk out on the speakers at SxSW and don’t care about the questions. I’m not surprised because I know they are trying to maximise their stay, but still, I can’t help finding it rude…

Unlike last year, I did more networking and spent more time wondering what on Earth I could go and listen to. There was just so much choice and so little time!

Digital trends for the future and what they really mean to us

There are six topics that clearly dominated the agenda at South by South West Interactive this year:

  • wearables: 105 sessions discussed wearables, either as a core subject or indirectly, especially through the angle of data. I didn’t attend any, but heard that the session with a guy who had tested all kinds of wearables for one year was an eye-opener on the potential but also dangers of wearable tech.
  • 3D printing: it is still big and maturing, but in my opinion hasn’t reached a tipping point yet. At the trade show I tested a 3D pen called the 3Doodler and have to admit I was tempted to buy one!
  • augmented reality: Oculus Rift and the rediscovered potential of virtual reality (VR) were the talk of the week at SxSW. I tested Oculus Rift for myself to visit Mars and although I loved the gaming potential of the tool, I still fail to grasp how this could ever replace the physical world which appeals to ALL our senses.
  • robotics: drones were everywhere at South by, on the programme but also at the trade show. Robots even had their own petting zoo, which I visited. My kids were both horrified and intrigued by the petting zoo, which sums up pretty much how I felt about a lot of what I heard at South by this year.
  • artificial intelligence: now that was a fascinating subject, not the least because AI is still in its infancy. I attended great sessions where the ethical, legal and social consequences of the evolution of AI were demonstrated. Very soon legislators and educators, to name a few, will have to confront themselves with difficult questions. Who is responsible when the car is in driverless mode and there is an accident? Who does the car protect: the kid crossing the street or the driver? Asimov’s Robotics laws are going to come in handy soon…
  • sharing economics and Bitcoin: Airbnb, Uber, Bitcoin and the newcomers in sharing economics know it too well: legislation always plays catch-up with social evolution and it’s only a matter of time before our societies become sharing economies. But who really benefits from this? I was saddened to see that very few sessions were discussing the more difficult questions behind the concept of sharing economics.
  • Bonus – Meerkat: this new Israeli app that lets you tweet live streams was the hot cat at SxSW 2015.”>Check it out for yourself – I don’t want to spoil the surprise by saying what I think of it 🙂

Although most sessions were very stimulating intellectually, I felt that something was lacking in this beautiful world of tech. Actually, the more I hear about the potential of technology, the more I aspire to sit amidst nature, to share rare moments of tech-free bliss with family and friends, and to free myself from the tantalizing tempting world of tech. I welcome technology that helps us save lives, brings us closer to our loved ones and elevates our body and soul. I dislike technology that is meant to free up time so you can spend it on another faceless device or piece of tech. What’s the point of having driverless cars if everyone in the car is just going to be glued to their mobile screens?

I’m not a pessimist. I hope that in future editions SxSW will invite participants to more debates and more controversial sessions. Two often than not the ones I attended only presented one single view of the situation. Dare to be more political South by organisers!

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