While the SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards named Civic Engagement as the Breakout Trend of SXSW Interactive, there were three other trends that dominated. These trends demanded every Interactive participant’s attention and were inescapable in the sense that I couldn’t go a day, an hour in some cases, without hearing someone talk about one of these trends or seeing one of them in action.
Virtual Reality (VR) was everywhere. From parties to lounges to panels – it was nearly impossible to go anywhere that didn’t have a VR headset ready for someone to put on and go to another reality. SXSW even hosted its first VR/AR track this year in order to bring experts from all disciplines together and put a microscope on the growing phenomenon. It was rather exciting to watch how people are looking to incorporate VR into the realms of not just entertainment, but journalism and education as well. While I’m not sure whether VR is here to stay or if it will disappear like some other tech trends of SXSW past, the special attention SXSW put on VR makes me excited for a future where VR will be apart of everyday life.
Encryption and the “Swiss bank in your pocket”
In light of the current FBI vs Apple legal battle, the issues around encryption and privacy turned SXSW into an arena of where technology and politics went toe-to-toe. During President Obama’s keynote conversation, he tried to remain neutral on the topic and emphasized the importance of balancing privacy and security. The phrase coined by Obama during this conversation, “swiss bank in your pocket”, referring to the dangers of smartphones with impregnable encryptions, was quoted, disputed, and analyzed by expert panels throughout SXSW. Some speakers, such as Bruce Sterling, a futurist and the long time giver of Interactive’s closing remarks, felt that the encryption issue was overblown.
Others, however, such as Misha Govshteyn, Chief strategy Officer at Alert Logic and panelist at the It’s Not About an iPhone: Fixing the Encryption Mess panel, called for people to educate themselves and take a stand on the issue rather than focus on President Obama’s trip to Torchy’s Tacos (which the panelist proceeded to call disgusting, which was naturally followed by boos from the audience members, including myself). While it doesn’t seem like this issue is going to be solved anytime soon, SXSW did serve as the perfect platform to discuss it from both the political and technological point of view.
I know you did not click on this article to read about Donald Trump. I did not attend SXSW Interactive to hear about Donald Trump either, but his name was brought up or alluded to in every single one of the diverse range of panels I attended, from panels about online harassment to panels about meditation. More often than not, these mentions were not simply name dropping, but rather entire discussions about Trump’s behavior, which was often followed by an “oh god what have we done” mentality.
Speakers like Dan Rather, former news anchor for the CBS Evening News, dissected Trump’s rise to the top, while others like Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace and ex-monk, alluded to Trump while speaking on the mental health of our nation. The focus on Trump reveals the anxiety the tech community has towards the possibility of a Trump presidency. While speaker Bruce Sterling joked about a Trump presidency being the American equivalent of Silvio Berlusconi’s corrupt and scandal-filled time as Prime Minister of Italy, he also tapped into the fears of the tech community when discussing how a Trump presidency could play out in a world where international politics and economics are in a bit of a tail spin. Even though this my first SXSW during an election year, I can imagine that it’s been a few election cycles since a candidate has had such a domineering presence at Interactive.