Almost of pilgrimage-status, each year the likes of SXSW and Cannes greet the privileged thousands that have come to feast in the promised lands of creativity – as we know it. Off the back of my recent trip to Austin I reflect on the festival culture and the real value of the laminate pass – a staple accessory in adland.
———————————————————————————-Back in 1986, Ronald Regan was President, the Internet was still in creation and an Apple Mackintosh would set you back about $5,000. Meanwhile in Austin a small group of people gathered to discuss the future of entertainment and media. With their love of music and unwavering support for local talent they created an event that over the next three decades would bring the world to the city. In its thirtieth year it was the world and me. Oh and the Obamas, sure.
To say the festival takes over downtown Austin is no exaggeration. When running between sessions I liked to spot the brave locals determined enough to go about their weekend chores, while navigating the queue-lined avenues of festival-goers waiting for a selfie with a melting street performer in a Darth Vader getup.
It wasn’t until my second day that I realised SXSW is just as much about the people you meet as the widely-anticipated app launches or big reveals. From the Uber drivers that made each morning commute so eye-opening, to the possibilities of adapting to life’s circumstances (I’m talking robotic arms), to all the speakers that came to shed light on what they’ve spent the recent part of their careers pondering.
Ever heard of a guy called Riccardo Sabatini? I myself had not until I snuck into one of the smaller, more understated rooms in the Austin Convention Centre to hear him talk about the not-so-fictional future of medicine with computational genomics. Completely out of my depth, I listened as Sabatini discussed his work on cracking the Human Code. Our predetermined secrets, diseases and beauty are all written in our human genome – these are the complete set of genetic instructions needed to build a human being. This goes beyond test-tube babies and is more like the making of super-humans and for the Ethan Hawk or Jude Law fans reading this, it’s basically the plot of Gattaca. Incredible, but terrifying. It wasn’t too long before ‘the fear’ crept in and I began to imagine what the effect would be on the world and its industries if one day our health blueprints were public property.
‘The Fear’ as I call it, is something that worsens with booze, so perhaps I blame the free tequila flowing through the streets of Austin, but it’s genuinely a concern for the future of the world and the battles we have ahead of us when it comes to ‘progress’ as we call it. It’s sort of like a postcard of the future from my imagination – very much Jim’ll Paint It kinda vibes. With Austin bursting at the seams with people looking to radically change the world for the better (well most of them) it was only natural that my instinctive thought was how we protect them and their work, from those that will want to capitalise from it.
Presenting is an art-form. I’ve no doubt that even the most celebrated key-note speakers respect it as a hard-earned craft. One you’ve got to mould, perhaps slightly painfully at first like a pair of new leather shoes. The blisters will be worth it I sense. Still, I don’t think I’ve seen a presenter quite like Andy Puddicombe. The founder of Headspace filled one of the biggest rooms in the Convention Centre with the promise of showing how one can train the mind for a healthier and happier life. Perhaps the unforgettable part was participating in a meditation exercise with a thousand other people and his no-slide no-note talk, as Andy shared how he transformed his perception of the world and the events in his life that had forced him to do so. With rare mention of the app (surprising skeptics) Andy emphasised the importance of not losing our awareness between body and mind. It goes beyond ‘living in the moment’ or ‘living for now’, instead it should be a part of our necessary exercise quota – something current mental health stats would justify as our world becomes ever more connected and ourselves more disconnected at the same time. Cue The Fear.
As I’m sure many of you have read by now (it’s literally been three months) SXSW was littered with VR from McDonald’s simulation of a Happy Meal Box to Gillette’s Gel Pressure Chamber. I’m not sure what was more surreal, taking part or just watching others with their headsets on. Whilst many discussed why it’s likely to become the next biggest social platform, and how humans will evolve to become one-screen populations (dialling in and out of different realities – according to Wired’s Kevin Kelly), there wasn’t that much on its biggest barrier – the cost. One app that launched this year at SXSW and is certainly one to keep on the radar is Splash. Developed as a Snapchat-like platform for casual sharing in virtual reality, Splash lets users bypass expensive 360 cameras and create immersive videos using just their smartphones. For me, the experience has to be worth the price, and I mean it needs to provide a story in a way that no other medium can. Soon people will grow tired of placing a fairly clunky headset on for a mediocre experience.
Experience – there’s a word. I’d say after SXSW I’ve developed a real fondness for panel-style talks. I think the presence of other people often leads to panel participants being ‘mentally egged-on-’ to say the (slightly) provocative thought that everyone’s thinking. So when it came to the panel ‘The Next Three Billion People on Social’ I turned up early – I’m talking early enough to get a seat early. It took over two decades for the first three billion people to get online, but it’s estimated that by the end of 2018, an additional three billion people will get connected. What’s driving this? The increased adoption of mobiles and more accessible data have something to do with it, but Facebook and Google are certainly key drivers. Both have their offerings in this space. Facebook with Internet.org and Google with their Loon Project – a network of high-altitude connectivity balloons floating in the stratosphere. Sort of like the film ‘Up’ but with no old man or soundtrack that will make you weep for weeks. Facebook have reportedly put a further twenty-five million people online from the furthest corners of Columbia to those of Zambia – ensuring their first experience of ‘online’ is a social one. It was Buzzfeed’s tech reporter Alex Kantrowitz who first acknowledged the inevitable horror of newsfeed traffic, with a further three billion sharing auto-playing videos of their one year-old reciting all the elements of the periodic table or their pet raccoon brushing its own teeth. Most of us have always been somewhat aware of Facebook’s invested interest in mobile (as it stands they own the four most-downloaded apps including WhatsApp, which in February of this year reached an impressive one billion monthly users) and more recently the opportunities within chat. Their latest enhanced Messenger features demonstrate an ambition for the app to become the window in which we access everything we use and do.
It’s probably fair to say that many of us have little or no clue about the effects of our activity online. As a result we (without realising) live in a world of trusted authority. Whether it’s your bank providing your monthly statement or your email provider confirming your message was delivered to your chosen recipient, there’s always a risk that the source of authority could be manipulated or simply be wrong. That’s why internet security is such a disaster today; we’re trusting sources that can be hacked or manipulated. We’re trusting these ‘authorities’ with our most precious personal data. So let me introduce you to Blockchain. For those of you who haven’t heard of such things, Director of the MIT Media Lab Joi Ito predicted that “Blockchain will be to banking and law what the Internet was to media.” Currently used as the technology behind Bitcoin transactions, Blockchain is to Bitcoin what the internet is to email – as the FT puts it. While Bitcoin is widely disputed (fad or not?) Blockchain has presented itself as a game-changer. Simply put (very, very simply) it’s a database that tracks transactions, which once added can’t be hacked into or tampered with. Only since returning from SXSW I’ve learned about the companies starting to incorporate Blockchain technology, mostly banks. Rather unexpectedly Estonia secures most of its banking infrastructure with Blockchain and currently boasts the lowest rate of credit card fraud in the euro zone.
Unlike all the perishable items I brought back (the beef jerky and tubs of BBQ salt) the one thing I’ve not been able to shake is my uber-dodgy US pronunciation of ‘Generation Zeeee’. In case you hadn’t heard Millennials have come and gone as the ‘most talked about consumer’ and Gen Z has arrived. Representing individuals born post 1995, Gen Z are reportedly the most ethnically diverse generation. They’ve grown up with YouTube as their primary viewing platform, watching up to four hours a day. Such behaviour has driven their word-of-mouth preferences, seeking up to seven separate outlets on average for reviews before making a purchase. When it comes to their interactions with brands they are three times more likely to engage with a brand via chat than email-marketing. What’s most intriguing is their view on gender having grown up in a world of unprecedented gender fluidity. In a survey conducted by JWT, eighty-one percent of Gen Zs agreed that gender doesn’t define a person and seventy percent felt strongly that public spaces should provide access to gender neutral bathrooms. The more I learnt about Gen Z, the more I couldn’t help but acknowledge the irony in the efforts to so desperately define a generation who have so openly rejected society’s more traditional norms to avoid any form of classification. I wondered what pressures this generation would put on society and brands and all who approach them to see beyond their most obvious characteristics?
Before I headed to Texas I’d been told from my more seasoned SXSW colleagues that it was a festival like no other, one that was hard to summarise. I too now find myself in a similar predicament. There can never be one single conclusion; instead the best talks start the most stirring conversations. So if there’s any word or one-liner of this that you want to hear more about, just come find me. For the meantime, in regards to how the world is looking to change over the next thirty years, I think the words of MIT’s Joi Ito will do just fine: “I think that we’ll survive it, but we’re going to be fundamentally different.” [Insert ‘preach’ emoji here].