SXSW in Five Amazing Ideas
AnalogFolk's creative partner Simon Richings on spending time with the big thinkers at this year's SXSW festival.
SXSW is like Glastonbury Festival. Not because of the music, comedy, and other interesting creative goings on (though there are those things); but because there is so much going on simultaneously. It’s a vast menu of brain food, and there’s no way you can eat it all. However, through a combination of luck and some last-minute planning on the plane, I did get to fill up on delicious creative inspiration.
Attending with an Interactive Pass (as opposed to a Music or Film ticket), I somehow managed to almost entirely avoid sessions that directly related to brands and marketing. This is good. Few of the speakers are debuting brand new ideas at SXSW. Most are presenting their already established thinking – established in articles, videos, books and previous seminars. If it’s your industry, you’ve likely come across their particular point of view before.
So, most of my South By was spent completely off piste, sometimes completely lost, but always having big, smart fun. A little of what I learned in Austin follows. It’s difficult to say how any of it is going to directly impact my own creative practice, the industry or life generally. But it will.
1. A panel on ‘The Future of Intelligence’ revealed that the big issue on the horizon (big like racial discrimination, gender equality, reproductive health rights, etc) is ‘evolution rights’. Bryan Johnson’s company Kernal, is developing advanced neural interfaces and other ways to make your brain faster and smarter. But not everyone will think ‘upgrading’ is a good thing.
2. ‘Intelligent Machines Will Eat Their Young and Then Us’ was a much more light-hearted panel than expected. It turns out AI (maybe the festival’s single most popular topic) is way, way off being able to send androids back in time to kill the mother of the human resistance leader. The more immediate danger comes from AI exhibiting phenomena like ‘reward hacking’. This happens when instrumental goals are set for machines without consideration of human values (e.g. Self-driving car is tasked to find quickest route to destination. Self-driving car works out that it can take a shortcut through a shopping mall). A quote by prominent scientist Andrew Ng popped up a couple of times over SXSW, and neatly summed it up: ‘There could be a race of killer robots in the far future, but I don’t work on not turning AI evil today for the same reason I don't worry about the problem of overpopulation on the planet Mars.’
3. On Mars, it was all about Pre-Deployment. Dr Robert Ambrose of NASA showed footage of machines unpacking themselves and equipment from landing modules. The thinking is that robots can go to the Red Planet ahead of the humans, creating a safer landing zone, preparing habitats, putting the kettle on - that sort of thing.
4. From pre-deployment to Pre-Suasion: this was the new book and idea from noted social psychologist, Robert Cialdini. Essentially, it’s about priming your audience to be more open and sympathetic to your main message when it arrives - whatever that may be. Cialdini was compelling and convincing, though I spent the whole time thinking I may have been pre-suaded into believing him.
5. I now also believe that tidying up can be the basis of an entire philosophy. Bestselling author, Marie Kondo showed that transformative tidying come from keeping only the items that spark joy, rather than searching for stuff you can discard. It was strangely moving, and seems like a good basis for many life decisions. Also, I leant how to fold socks.
These are just a few of the big thinkers that I spent time with in Austin. Maybe they won’t all find their way into the work, but collectively they affect me in an additional way. Just being in the presence of these great minds is hugely stimulating. We might not be designing Mars robots, building neural interfaces or creating new philosophies, but knowing that there is this huge intellectual space to stretch into, between the everyday and the genius, it’s inspiring. It makes me braver, more ambitious, and well, more creative.
Anyway, must go. I’m off to create a Snapchat lens that will CHANGE THE WORLD.
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