SXSW diary: Rain, rain, DNA

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The range of questions at SXSW reflects an uncertainty around technology, writes the director of trend forecasting at J. Walter Thompson.

It's been a drizzly few opening days at SXSW Interactive this year—and as light rain continues to fall, marketers and technologists who came expecting spring break are either gripping their umbrellas tighter or deciding to "lean in" and face the skies unprotected. Either way, it seems we're all in this together.

At the risk of grasping at a metaphor, it does feel that last year's sunny techno-optimism has been thrust into unseasonable shadows by the events of the past year. In 2017, panels abound on topics such as threats to data privacy, containing the spread of fake news, and AI-enabled job disruption. But, as always, there's lighthearted fun to be found when you need it.

I find myself noticing a lot of talk about DNA—the literal stuff in our cells, not the less specific kind we talk about in reference to brands—which seems to be a thread here tying together all of the above. A Saturday keynote at the Austin Convention Center by Jennifer Doudna, a co-discoverer of the CRISPR-Cas9 technology that is allowing humans for the first time to precision-edit DNA in cells, drew lines literally wrapping up and down stairwells. A packed house listened as Doudna explained the mechanics of her discovery in remarkable detail, given the largely non-technical audience, before posing an array of questions:

"When will I be able to edit my DNA to give me superpowers, such as swapping out my hemoglobin for the extra-special hemoglobin found in the blood of Tibetan Sherpas?"

"Will CRISPR allow us to attain immortality?" 

"Will your invention lead to a society divided by genetics and create a new form of discrimination, as seen in the 1997 film Gattaca?" 

Doudna demurred with great patience as she explained over and over again that for the time being, we wouldn't know which genes to edit to create such outcomes. But she said that it's important to start the ethical conversations now, so we're ready when and if these modifications do become possible. And she said that CRISPR-based treatment for adults with sickle-cell disease—a devastating genetic illness—might become available soon.

The range of questions reflected our remarkable uncertainty around technology right now: Are we headed toward hell or paradise on earth? There seemed to be precious little middle ground.

But then there was levity: Bold Threads, a San Francisco–based technology startup, announced "the first spider silk product ever available for purchase"—a $314 necktie. Unlike silkworms, spiders tend to respond aggressively when humans try to harvest their excretions (surprise, surprise). Up to now this has limited what we can do with their famously strong material. But Bold Threads has developed a process where DNA can be spliced into yeast cells, and instead of making beer, the cells start spitting out spider silk, spider-free.

"I look at apparel and we should be demanding more, and we're not," said Bolt Threads CEO Dan Widmaier. "There's a lot of opportunity for this to displace things that are not innovative and unsustainable ... and silkworms are as efficient as they're going to be after 5,000 years." He then bestowed a necktie on a lucky member of the audience, before an entrepreneur from Bali turned his question for Widmaier into an impromptu pitch for his own invention, "drinkable plastic."

Does the average consumer care about DNA? Definitely, when it comes to their own privacy, said Kate Black, privacy officer and corporate counsel at direct-to-consumer genetics testing company 23andMe. At Black's panel on DNA and privacy, the specter of recent data leaks, and of potential government surveillance, loomed large.

But Black said open communication with customers was critical and could go a long way toward creating trust. "Trust is a product ... we have to build that into the product and let them see the transfer of information," she said. That might be the biggest takeaway from the DNA privacy conversation: At a moment of great uncertainty, brands have to work harder than ever to create trust.

Shepherd Laughlin is the director of trend forecasting at J. Walter Thompson.