I have a love hate relationship with SxSW. The festival is chaotic, oversubscribed and poorly organized with an outdated technical infrastructure. But, the infectious excitement around The Next Big Thing ™ and the first class caliber of speakers, plus the motivation to challenge the confines of your habitual, digital attitudes makes the schlep to Austin and the diet of bad tacos and crap beer worthwhile.
At the midway point, there’s debate emerging about the themes that are trending this year.
‘Data’ is now ‘Big Data’ – the point being to create and enable technologies, applications and platforms that unlock useful and unique data assets.
Data, quite frankly, has never been sexier. Experts are also predicting the death of concerns around privacy, as people become more informed – they want the best online experience possible and they want to be served only contextually ‘super relevant’ recommendations, and just expect that businesses are keeping their confidential data safe whilst doing so.
There’s big buzz around the notion of the social economy, and the evolution of peer-to-peer currency. The growth of collaborative consumption and the phenomenal success of businesses like AirB&B and etsy are forcing a significant step change in economic exchange, we’re told.
But it was the bold prediction that 3D printing will unleash a new industrial revolution that feels like this year’s ‘Twitter’. Bre Pettis, the founder of a Brooklyn based start-up called Makerbot, revealed a shoebox size printer that can recreate objects from a simple digital design file.
Pettis reckons that 3D printing for the masses has the potential to rewrite the rules of manufacturing. Whilst I’m not sure I truly need another means of accumulating more ‘stuff’ I was blown away by the vast potential of this technology – from ending the need to make things in large quantities and to delivering against our insatiable appetite for customization.
But the biggest inspirational catalysts are the people.
Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and now CEO of SpaceX, talked in layman’s terms about why reaching Mars is vital for the survival of humanity. Comforting to know someone’s sweating the big stuff. Author Douglas Ruskoff on the other hand, pointed out the all too familiar ridiculousness of our shift towards a persistent, perpetual ‘presentism’ where we’ve become obsessed with ‘real time’ and being ‘always on’.
Then there’s Evan Smith, Editor in Chief of the Texas Tribune who reflected on the complex relationship between journalism and digital innovation. He talked about the barriers to information being all but extinct now, which he neatly labeled the democratization of democracy.
He gave a nod to the brilliant new world ability to organize and mobilise people, and the important impact this has on politics. He also referenced the ‘curatorial’ nature of digital consumption as a means to ensuring people can now shape conversations that interest them.
But on the flip side, and rather scarily, this move towards personal curation that we’re all embracing… from picking our Facebook friends and choosing who we follow on Twitter to aligning with a ‘preferred’ traditional news source… signifies that we’re edging closer to a siloed world of controlled information consumption.
Meaning that we basically block out opinions that we don’t agree with. Scary stuff. Smith states that democracy was built around the total opposite.