13 Mar 2014

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Genuine Insights, Sweeping Predictions and Pure Promotion–Our Take-aways From SXSW Interactive 2014

sxswIn Alfred Hitchcocks 1959 classic “North by Northwest”, fugitive ad executive Roger Thornhill (a suave Cary Grant) says: “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.”

South by Southwest (SXSW), the festival named after the Hitchcock movie, walks a similar fine line between sweeping prediction, genuine insight and outright promotion.

Of course, it’s also this (in no particular order): a giant Happy Hour with free booze available everywhere, a source of inspiration, a great way to re-learn how to stand in a line (SXSW veteran advice: never stand in line), a place of random meetings, and just plain fun.

For the third year in a row, Flip the Media covered the event through a whirlwind of panels, keynotes, parties and late night editing sessions. Here is what a few of our writers took away from the experience and what they think is hot in tech.

You Will All Be Eating Insects!

Hanns-Peter Nagel

Hanns-Peter Nagel Icon

It’s hard to sum up the impressions of five days of SXSW in a few paragraphs. So here is my highly speculative attempt.

Genuine insight: Both, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, made a virtual appearance at SXSW and generally got a positive reaction. Their cause is freedom to control your own data and the dangerous accumulation of large amounts of information in the hands of just a few powerful actors. Surprisingly, many speakers at SXSW echoed this sentiment—often while presenting a new start-up that would collect even more data. This contradiction will have to be resolved at some point.

Sweeping predictions: Wearables are the hot thing in tech now and the abandoned Fitbit in your drawer won’t change that. They are becoming more advanced, more useful and even more “emotional”.

Beyond that, a new trend is taking shape at the intersection of biology, technology and engineering. We will be able to print, “reboot” and manipulate cells and organisms with all the obvious consequences, ranging from an “unintentional extinction event” (Joi Ito, director of the MIT media lab) to the solution for the coming meat shortage.

Industries ready to take off? Judging by all the SXSW hipsters sucking on electronic cigarettes, 2014 might be the year these devices become mainstream. For a more left-field tip, I would go with start-ups making mainstream food out of insects. With billions of people around the world getting rich enough to afford meat, insects could be the solution to deal with the coming shortage.

Pure promotion: SXSW is one big pitching session and it’s hard to keep track of all the new ideas. So here is a shout-out to some products or projects I think are cool, innovative and helpful.

Everybody who has ever worked in a non-profit or foundation knows that grant-writing or grant-giving is a pain. Stacks of paper, loads of PDFs and long checklists require a supremely idealistic person for an administrator. Phoenix Cosmopolitan Group has created a platform that would take away much of the recurring paperwork and promises to match up grantor and grantee more efficiently.

It took Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill five years to finish their expansive film project on the aftershocks of Dutch colonialism on local communities. Out came some impressive footage and an innovative way to interweave stories online (check in Chrome).

In the age of the cloud, it’s strange that video editing is still a lonely endeavor. Unless you are a pro, there is no obvious solution to create a video as a team. WeVideo is trying to change that with a service that let’s groups collaborate in the editing process at relatively modest cost.

Creativity is the New Literacy

Carolyn Higgins

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The frenzied world of SXSW Interactive is being dissembled; trade show booths are coming down. People are scattering literally to the four corners of the earth, to be replaced by the music and film crowd.

Even since last year’s conference, there has been an evolution in thought and technology, with progress in wearables especially notable. Last year’s excitement over Google Glass appears to have evaporated like dew on an Austin morning. It’s old hat now, and no, everyone was not sporting Google Glasses.

And speaking of Google Glass, sessions on blending technical pragmatism with human emotion and aesthetic refinement were ubiquitous. That same theme of technology being harnessed and brought ever closer to human beings carried into other sessions as well. MIT’s Joi Ito and Tim Brown of IDEO emphasized the role technology has to free us, with their examples rooted in the art world.

If you had to think about your brush when you were painting, what would you get done? – was the question posed. Anyone using a smartphone or other device experiences the distraction – and often of frustration – of concentrating on the tool rather than the task – or the dream.

“It’s about DIVERGENT thinking – what happens when you put a lot more choices in front of people and makes it easier for them to explore options,“ explained Brown. Pure art channels the creative side. Design is creative but also engages our symbolic, analytic brain. Developers of new technologies are looking to free our creativity. And as Seattle’s Chase Jarvis preaches, creativity is the new literacy.

A new slant on technology supporting creativity was illustrated by Canadian rock star Neil Young, at SXSW to promote Pono, the technology he and friends have developed to restore vinyl era sound quality to the music industry.

How we harness technology to our will and how we use it for our own pleasure was only one part of the conference.

Virtual appearances by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden fascinated SXSWers and expanded the conversation that their respective acts have started about our rights to privacy. Where the boundaries between the need of the state to protect itself from outside hazards and the rights of citizens to know what their elected officials are doing is one of the most important questions of our day, and because of the technology we have, those conversations are continuing on a global scale.

And of course, the widespread airing of those interviews took the conversation that much further at SXSW. In his session, former Star Trek star (and now social media star) George Takei wondered about the fate of Edward Snowden and took the interviewer to task. “He didn’t ask the most important question,” said Takei. “What comes next?”

That is a good question, and one that will keep us interested in all of these topics going forward. What is next?

It’s the Little Things That Count

Katya Yefimova

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When you walk into a SXSW Interactive session, you run the danger of entering an echo chamber where people talk about ideas they already know and agree with, It’s a side effect of any conference. On the flip side, with every session you are entering a room full of like-minded people. What better way to find a collaborator for your next project? Making these connections was the best part of the conference for me: Striking up a conversation while in line to get tacos and realizing that the stranger you are talking to shares your interests.

It’s easy to spend all your time at popular sessions without doing much research about all that SXSW has to offer. And it has a lot to offer: One of my favorite experiences was attending workshops at the quiet AT&T Conference Center. Spending time with a smaller group and getting to know them during the workshop means you can participate in a discussion and get answers to your questions.

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Genuine Insights, Sweeping Predictions and Pure Promotion–Our Take-aways From SXSW Interactive 2014