SXSW 2018: Where Tech and Humanity Collide

This year’s SXSW (South by South West) Interactive Festival brought together a diverse range of speakers and perspectives at the intersection of art, commerce, technology and culture. Held in Austin, Texas, from March 8 to 13, the five-day festival was fuelled by a unique mix of strong coffee, craft beer, live music, and unexpected moments of eccentricity and delight. We sat down with FCB attendees Emily Isle (General Manager – Digital Media) and Murray Streets (General Manager – Integrated Strategy) to learn all about it.

Pepper, a human-shaped robot, is the first robot capable of recognising human emotions and adapting his behaviour accordingly.

Pepper, a human-shaped robot, is the first robot capable of recognising human emotions and adapting his behaviour accordingly.


The Weird and the Wonderful

This year’s festival proved a diverse source of learning and inspiration with its myriad panels, keynote speakers and brand activations. Want to talk blockchain and cryptocurrencies? See AR’s impact on the beauty category? Or explore retail trends and forecasts? It’s all at SXSW, whether you’d prefer to feast or just take a quick bite.

While the atmospheres of previous festivals have been largely dominated by an unbridled enthusiasm for tech and data, in our view, the 2018 festival was characterised by three E’s: the Ethics  of technology, the importance of Empathy  in design, and the last minute appearance of the ever-mercurial Elon Musk.

Given the growing disquiet at the dubious practices of social media giants such as Facebook, and the more recent revelations surrounding Cambridge Analytica, these three themes were highly prescient. Gone were the fashionable marketing panels about building brands with purpose – instead, there were more nuanced and challenging sessions about the ethics of innovation, ranging from AI and blockchain economies to retail supply chains and space travel.

Innovation as a Catalyst for Ethics

There are significant concerns about what humans may be unleashing as AI develops. As the panellists pointed out, these fears tend to be aggravated by works of sci-fi and popular culture which exploit the dramatic tension this technology presents. Directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott, for example, have both famously dramatized what could happen if robots gain sentience, take over and turn on their human creators, fuelling a highly paranoid popular consciousness.

However, great art has always focused on bringing to life fundamental questions about what it is to be human. This year, many tech entrepreneurs and thought leaders highlighted the need to design technology correctly in order to solve ethical dilemmas. But how to tackle this at its source? The root code.

  • When it comes to blockchain and distributed ledgers that promise to remove the middleman, who sets the incentives?
  • When designing user experiences, how do we ensure we avoid so-called ‘dark patterns’ that exploit our weaknesses as humans?
  • And how do we prevent the rise of voice assistants and domestic robots leading to abusive relationships?
  • How do we optimise a tech-driven and increasingly autonomised economy to also tackle human inequality?
  • How do we better connect creators and buyers and make retail experiences more relevant to consumer values?


As Tim O’Reilly stated, “Tech is our superpower. Inequality is our kryptonite.”

Empathy Remains our Unique Human Trait

Time and again, the best panels we attended made a plea for positioning empathy at the heart of all tech and design. Not only should empathy figure at the centre of strategic thinking, strong customer and user experience design, but it should also characterise the nature of innovation itself.

This doesn’t just mean that innovators should walk in the shoes of their customers to reduce friction and make their customers’ lives easier; it means seriously thinking through the implications and consequences of design and innovation, and in so doing, harnessing and reinforcing the best of humanity.

By tapping into empathy, we give a voice to the consumer in the design process and become more likely to avoid dark patterns which only drive short-term performance. For instance, by creating mobile display ads that include what looks like human hair in the creative, prompting an urge in the user to swipe the ‘hair’ off their screen, and thereby capturing clicks. Though this is an extreme example, it is representative of many design mishaps in the digital world. Catering to these dark patterns is unsustainable, and leads to disgruntled (not loyal) consumers.

By contrast, in blockchain-based digital advertising, one proposed trading currency is pure human attention. With human attention exchanged between publishers, advertisers and users in the form of a blockchain token, activity optimises to mental engagement – a far more sustainable metric for customer loyalty than clicks or even impressions.

One AI entrepreneur revealed that her project teams are always multidisciplinary, containing roughly two-thirds computer scientists and engineers, and one-third psychologists and philosophers. Recently, this speaker assembled a team of these specialists to create an AI with a soul.

Sustainable innovation requires us to harness the best of diverse human thinking. At another session entitled ‘Generation Mars’, a panel comprised of astronauts, scientists and a Hollywood script-writer all agreed that realising the dream to get to Mars is an all-of-society project. Artists need to ignite the imaginations of a new generation, just as much as engineers need to work out how we can get there. Psychologists need to understand how to overcome loneliness and disconnection in deep space, while dieticians and nutritionists need to design fulfilling and sustaining menus for the journey.

The Mars Colony Must Save Humanity from Itself

Elon Musk’s surprise visit to SXSW proved a PR coup. Fans queued from early morning to attend his keynote. Talking across a range of topics, he reiterated his belief that the quest to get to Mars might well be essential to regenerate the human race.

Musk is openly critical and fearful of the power of AI. He expressed this by citing the notion of the AI strawberry planting machine that is optimised to maximise strawberry production. Very quickly, this AI seeks to reclaim more land to produce more strawberries, showing little regard for neighbouring human settlements that happen to sit on prime strawberry growing land – with dire consequences.

Musk reiterated the critical ethical question that characterised this year’s Festival: to what end are we optimising technology?

Whatever your views on Musk himself, he offered the following perspective on why he’s motivated to pursue the seemingly impossible:

“There are a lot of negative things in the world … there are lots of problems that need to get solved. There are lots of things that are miserable and kind of get you down. But life cannot just be about solving one miserable problem after another. That can’t be the only thing. There need to be things that inspire you, that make you glad to wake up in the morning and be part of humanity.”

The call to arms from SXSW 2018 was to seize the opportunity to ensure tech innovation augments the best of humanity through conscious, ethical design, making a better future for society and communities – not just marketers and customers.

Date: May 02, 2018