SXSW 2017: An Escape From Politics? Think Again. (Surprisingly, That’s A Good Thing.)
Once upon a time SXSW was a celebration of unsigned artists—hungry bands looking for a break. (If you recall that era, and you’re still going to SXSW, congrats on your admirable battle against Father Time.) Today the festival has aged well to embrace all facets of culture: music, film, television, digital, social, science, branding, and beyond. So if you entertained a notion that this year’s SXSW would offer a welcome break from the all-consuming 24-7 American political debate…you’d be wrong. Of course SXSW found room for politics too. In fact, much like 2017 itself, every topic seemed to resonate with political overtones—some more overt. Inspiringly however, politics in Austin was not Red vs. Blue. Instead, a discussion about the politics of collaboration and inspiration emerged. And in Texas of all places.
The SXSW organizers stated their plain intent to address more medical issues in the 2017 speaking roster (a hot topic as headlines all week blared the ever-contentious health care debate). But the effect was a look at what’s possible, politics be damned: Jennifer Doudna related how she changed the world of genetics (and potentially the world) through curiosity over agenda; Joe Biden declared his moonshot against cancer as “the only bipartisan thing left in America;” the NASA Mars team detailed international collaboration; and even Chuck Todd, political director of NBC News, theorized how big data could heal the American political divide. Of course there were plenty of non-political sessions too, but it’s notable how “the p-word” kept rearing its head…and how it was all so forward-thinking.
Following is an abridged look at my session diary across four days at SXSW Interactive. The festival is replete with worthwhile takeaways. I certainly can write another million words on everything OUTSIDE the session rooms. But as marketers, we know message matters. So here’s a look at what the official SXSW roster was saying (at least a small slice of it).
SATURDAY, MARCH 11: DNA AND THE 99%
-Keynote speaker Jennifer Doudna fascinated with details about her humanity-altering discovery: how to edit human DNA “just like the text of a document.” She developed a gene-editing process (as part of the CRISPR Project) that grants man “awesome power” to “control our own evolution.” You know, simple stuff. Equally as illuminating: the fact that this major discovery was made during an unrelated “curiosity-driven research project” (about viruses and bacteria). Doudna’s curiosity opened up possibilities for humankind to eradicate disease and sustain our future. The takeaway: stay curious—you never know where it will lead you. Or simply: if you’re interested, it’s worthwhile. (Don’t let business goals tell you otherwise.)
-A panel of major sports marketers (including Michael Conley of Cleveland Cavaliers) gathered to answer the query: “Do Stadium Fans Even Matter Anymore?” The short answer: No. Less than 1% of the fan-base watch from an arena. All panelists agreed readily that “the 99%” is the true market. It’s more important (and promising) to engage the 99%, than milk the 1% for even more profit (beyond high-priced tickets and in-stadium concessions). Where have I heard this “serve the 99%, not the 1%” slogan before? Even Bernie would be a fan.
-Amazing that as every facet of marketing, music, and film descends on Austin, that I still run into colleagues… even in my literal first two minutes here. Big business, small world.
-Dean Baquet, billed as the executive editor of “the failing New York Times,” assured SXSW that he is not “the enemy of the people.” He defines his mission as “honorable pursuit of the truth,” an inspiring benchmark for any field, IMO. Sure, politics took front-and-center in this discussion, but equally noteworthy was his call for inspired writing and elevated thought: “Write big stories that either explain or change the world.” Yes, please.
-Willowtree product designer Jordan Dunn discussed the challenges of designing for visual accessibility. He highlighted real hurdles when creating digital offerings for the visually impaired. But he scolded the room too: designers like to talk about "how much empathy” they all have, but how many consider the millions of blind users? It was an appeal for more inclusivity in design. Or, more minority representation (as one might say if he were forcing a political parallel into his write-up).
-Why is doing "good design research" so hard? Capital One’s Allison Abbott asserted it’s because we get in our own way with qualitative techniques that bias the outcomes. Maybe. But better qualitative research still demands sharp perspective and know-how to mine for real insights. That’s the discussion I was hoping for.
-Former Vice President Joe Biden delivered a stirring, personal talk about his “moonshot” initiative to cure cancer. He spoke candidly about his son’s death as well as Washington gridlock realities. “The only bi-partisan thing left in America is the fight against cancer.” A depressing sentiment within a motivating talk. The takeaway: many of our biggest research barriers can be scaled with broad, novel efforts to collaborate. For example, need to solve a radiation issue? Try enlisting NASA, who have protected astronauts from harmful rays for generations…but have never been asked to apply their know-how to chemo patients. Biden included many wonderful examples of how broad collaborative thinking conquers all. Now that’s a message for marketers and politicians alike.
MONDAY, MARCH 13: Cyborgs, Astronauts, Innovators & The FBI
-You might think a talk titled "Cyborg Civil Rights” would include a fun theoretical debate about the privacy limits of machines…you would be wrong. Meet Neil Harbisson, a self-defined “cyborg" who had an actual antenna implanted (illegally) into his skull. He claims he can feel the “vibrations of colors.” He also claims that he's treated unfairly, like when he was fired from his job as a waiter because no one wanted to employ a man with an antenna grafted to his head. Civil rights abuse? It’s not quite Selma. He might want to adjust his antenna’s reception.
-Astronaut Jessica Meir and a panel of engineers (from both NASA and Lockheed Martin) delivered an encore session of their talk, “So You Want To Go To Mars?” Why go to Mars at all? According to Meir, she’s partly motivated by a quest to attain the ultimate space-selfie. The in-depth talk was heavy on humor and sci-fi (“Everybody loves a jetpack!”) and a revealing peek into a massive effort of thousands across literal decades. Their “building block” approach begins with near-space experiments, then moon experiments, and ultimately Mars travel…and that’s after the under-sea camping trials and underground cave training. (I’m not sure going to Mars is so appealing in context of all that work!) My biggest takeaway: according to Meir, we send humans to Mars (as opposed to robots) because of our unique “power to improvise.” Improvisation is the defining characteristic of humanity. Who says jazz is dead?
-Pinterest’s Candice Morgan revealed her company’s efforts to “Innovate with Inclusion” to achieve a diverse workplace in the tech world. She detailed her own rising star as a young black girl with superior intellect (teachers often questioned her writing and testing in disbelief). Today she speaks plainly about an ugly (often unspoken) perception: If tech is a pure meritocracy, does the push for more diversity translate to poorer work? Her answer is clear and thought provoking: "We challenge each other less when surrounded by people who look like us. That means we work less hard.” And that means, of course, that our thinking doesn’t get pushed which hampers innovation. So diversity fuels innovation. Preach. She may have been discussing the importance of innovation and diversity in business, but no one missed the politics in this session.
-James Baker, General Counsel of the FBI, discussed the difficult balance between privacy and law enforcement in the field of cyber security. Do we have a right to encryption privacy? Should court warrants have the power to crack our personal devices? Should tech companies share our personal data with the FBI? Terrorism in San Bernardino brought this issue to global attention as the FBI worked to access the phone of an alleged terrorist. But the issue has broader implications for non-criminals alike, as we strive to protect ourselves from intrusion. Baker described the FBI’s “complex” relationship with tech companies (who he regularly subpoenas). He noted that they’re victims of crime too. And he was direct: His job demands him to “deal with reality as it is, not as we wish it to be.” Yet as he defended potential FBI intrusions, he issued a challenge: “Don’t trust us. Hold us accountable.” That’s the balance.
TUESDAY, MARCH 14: Meet The Crooked Media
-Kara Swisher moderated the founders of Crooked Media, all former members of the Obama administration and hosts of the Pod Save America podcasts. Of course this was expected to be the most political of all sessions. But surprisingly, the non-political notes rang loudest. When asked why he would choose a career discussing politics after such a big loss (guess which one), Tommy Vietor answered without hesitation: “It didn’t feel right to wake up and obsess about politics and then go to work doing something else.” (Reminder: Do what you love.) And regarding the reliance on technology to solve almost everything, Vietor expressed sheer exasperation: “Tech can’t solve every crisis! If one more person offers to ‘hack the refugee crisis,’ I will lose my **** mind!” (Reminder: Tech isn’t always the biggest idea.)
-Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd asked a dispiriting leading question: Is Big Data Destroying the U.S. Political System? He posited that our ability to collect hyper-specific data on every slice of society has translated into political messaging that speaks to hyper-specific segments—as opposed to messaging that appeals to broad groups, or heaven forbid, all Americans. The result is hyper-polarization. (“Ideological overlap has basically ceased to exist.”) He reviewed political ads before the “data revolution” with unifying appeal (as opposed to today’s divided gutters). And of course, all this data has resulted in gerrymandering that has furthered our polarization. But Todd pivoted: “How do you empower the political center?” The answer: put that data to good use. Identify the center and start redistricting from there. A final note from Sara Fagen, George W. Bush’s pollster, had us marketers craving more: “Politics is ahead of corporate America in the advertising-targeting business.” So maybe politics can lead by example? Just maybe.