SXSW 2019: Beware of geeks bearing gifts

This year's festival has shown an uneasy compromise between humans and tech.

In 2019, the festival that launched 1,000 apps is continuing to wake up to the legacy of what it helped create, questioning the ethical basis of everything from data bias to the consolidation of power to unregulated artificial intelligence.

But if SXSW has swung recently from tech triumphalism to digital dystopia, then this year was the one where humans and technology reached a sort of uneasy accommodation. 

Six years ago, it was enough to announce that you had an app that was going to change the world and make a ton of money. And not necessarily in that order. Now every other talk has an ethical dimension – sample title: AI and the Threat to Democracy. The latest acronym for the US tech giants is the G-MAFIA and Gary Kasparov half-joked to a packed room that "technology is one of the main reasons why so many people are still alive to complain about technology".

But you can’t keep a good innovator down and, all over Austin, companies and policy makers looked for new ways to make technology great again. 

Being America, there’s still a side of hubris to go with the main course of dystopia and doubt: on the theme of invented job titles, it’s not enough to be a chief executive any more – I counted at least three "chief visionaries". Not one we’ll be importing back to the UK, I suspect.

But these visionaries have clocked that it’s not enough to write an algorithm that deletes thousands of jobs overnight, so there’s a proliferation of talks about designing for humans, being ethical with data and how to put empathy into business and AI. So much so that there’s a real danger that "human-washing" looks set to be this year’s green-washing.

We hosted a panel following this train of thought – The Battle of the Extremes – on Saturday, looking at how technology can steer us away from extremism and towards a common ground. Co-hosted by Jon Wilkins and his AI alter ego Jon Bot, we attempted to demonstrate how AI could support a better quality of debate, not just push people into narrow filter bubbles. Aside from the co-hosts falling out with each other, the audience agreed that it’s not all AI’s fault that we increasingly live in filter bubbles. Or, as Google’s chief decisioner said: "It’s not AI that’s the problem but the decision makers that program it" –  somewhat self-servingly.

And again and again, SXSW looked to the people, politicians and policies that could protect and nurture us in a digital future. With the biggest queues of the weekend reserved for rockstar Democratic congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. 

Perhaps more practically, Macy’s, the department store, brilliantly demonstrated how giving its employees access to digital media allowed the company to return to growth and protect its staff. It harnessed the power of its people and used technology to apply their skills and expertise to a wider audience. A great case study for what trend gurus might call "phygital", but you have to be a chief visionary to get comfortable using jargon at that level. 

And outside on the roads and pavements everywhere you looked was the true marriage of human and machine – the app-powered scooters that hurled dozens of drunken Brits into oncoming traffic.

This was the real metaphor for SXSW 2019: technology is a powerful tool – we had just better be careful how we use it.

Ben Bilboul is chief executive of Karmarama

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