A take on SXSW 2019

Emma Birch
Jul 18, 2019 · 6 min read

Some key themes discussed at SXSW 2019 — From data privacy concerns to new AR wearables.

In March, I travelled to Austin Texas to experience SXSW and be inspired by creators, thinkers and innovators. This was my first time to Austin and woah was it a cool experience. There were over 75,000 people from all over the world and, despite the abundance of talks and interactive experiences at South By, I’ll attempt in this article to highlight just some of the topics I found very most thought provoking.

The commentary was twofold. There was excitement about the future of seemingly limitless possibilities thanks to technological advancements. However, at the same time there was heightened caution about the ethical decision making within the big tech companies and how these decisions impact political, economic and social spheres. Topics ranged from big data to immersive film in VR, roadless transportation, blockchain for social good, vertical farming, speculative futures and much more.

Key topic areas

Big Tech and Antitrust with Elizabeth Warren

There was much discussion about the growing power of big tech giants such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. Elizabeth Warren spoke out about her push to have these four tech companies broken up in order to prevent further monopolisation of multiple industries. She argued that antitrust rules should be instated in the tech industry to ensure fair competition. Using the example of Amazon, Warren explained how the company uses its marketplace to sell its own goods and uses the customer data sourced through its marketplace to be able to better promote its goods over competitor’s. Her analogy was that “you can be an umpire, or you can own one of the teams. You can’t be an umpire and own one of the teams”. This emphasises the power Amazon and other companies such as Google have, marketing their own products on their own platforms with insider knowledge on the best way to achieve conversions.

Big Data with Roger McNamee

Roger McNamee at SXSW

I also listened to Roger McNamee, a previous mentor to Mark Zuckerberg during the early beginnings of Facebook, speak out about his negative views on the business model that Facebook (and many of the other big tech companies) have adopted. Roger McNamee’s concerns were primarily centred around ethical data capture and specifically how we, as users of these online services, have not had the opportunity to debate whether companies should be gathering our personal data and profiting from how it used i.e. the on-sell of our health data, financial transactions and location. We, as users of these services, have become the product that companies sell to their customers — Other businesses i.e. data brokers and advertisers. The issue McNamee voices is that “all of that business model [is] developed behind a curtain”, and while people may think they are using a service for ‘free’, many people are still unaware that they are indeed paying for these services, just not monetarily.

Behaviour modification and Daniel Rushkoff

Ok but why do we care if these corporations collect and sell our data? According to author Shoshana Zuboff, data is the new currency in our capitalist society. The reason we should care about this is because the data these companies have acquired enables them to better understand us than we understand ourselves, to predict and modify our behaviour and to influence our ability to make autonomous decisions. As Daniel Rushkoff articulated at SXSW, in his Team Human talk “instead of creating technologies for people to use, we created technologies that use people”. What Rushkoff was referring to is how technology we use every day is designed in ways that circumvent individual awareness and shape our behaviour over time through using such humanistic drives as our desire for self-validation or positive reinforcement. So, the more data a company has and is able to interpret about its users, the better placed that company is to modify its customer’s behaviour and therefore the behavioural norms of our society.

Data and ethical design

At the very least companies should be transparent about whether they are collecting our data and how it is being used. At SXSW I learned that Google’s Recaptcha forms which ‘verify you’re not a robot’ are actually used to train their AI. This means we’ve all been training Google’s AI every time we select images of traffic lights or street signs in these Recaptcha forms. It’s otherwise unnecessary. Google is actually able to decipher whether we are a human based on our mouse movements and the screen navigation time. It is important that people know how their data is being used up front rather than burying this information somewhere in the T&Cs to allow consumers to make an informed decision over which platform they choose to use.

The death of roadways with NASA, Bell and McKinsey

In terms of transport, I heard a fascinating talk about the death of roadways. The four panellists from NASA, Bell and McKinsey agreed that by 2025 there will be flying cars carrying everyday travellers as an alternative to driving on the road. These were described as “flying Ubers”. The panellists talked about how flying cars will create substantial improvements to the average day commute which in Austin is only 25 minutes a day, compared to 90 minutes a day for Mumbai. Tech limitations are currently addressing the noise and cost in order to make this new form of transportation universally accessible. According to Thacker from Bell, we are moving from a large simple rotor as used in helicopters “to multiple ducted fans which rotate from vertical flight to forward flight”. This means that the vehicles are more efficient as they can better use the electric compulsive system, which is important for the energy consumption and noise reduction. Other considerations are moving from fuel to batteries, driverless flight, improved aerial communication and increasing technology’s ability to process data. Think, that in a bit more than a decade we could be flying to work! Then imagine the ancillary impacts: potential reductions in our environmental footprints, changes to property prices, increased economic production due to less time in transit and so on.

VR and AR experiences with Bose and Brillhart

Furthermore, the use of VR and AR to create new experiences whilst redefining music and video is very exciting. At South By, Bose was a clear leader in this space showcasing AR enabled wearables such as their immersive AR sunglasses . As you put the AR sunglasses on, immediately the noise from around you dissipates as if they are noise cancelling. I could walk around Elvis’ band and hear the musicians’ instruments become more or less loud depending on where I was standing on the virtual stage. The way this works is that there is a microphone and miniature speaker system inside the temples of the glasses and they integrate with loads of third-party software from other companies. This could be a step in the progression to wearing AR glasses day to day to add a layer of information and richness to our current reality.

Not to mention Jessica Brillhart from Vrai Pictures and previous filmmaker for VR at Google, talked about how to create films in VR. For example, she talked about focal points. Today, in a film we watch on TV there is often a clear focal point, for instance the protagonist in the centre of the screen. Yet, where is the focal point of a 360 degree video? In effect, the viewer becomes part of the experience. The viewer is at the centre and rather than viewing the reality depicted, they become part of that reality. Essentially, “it’s just like game design”. The ‘player’ or ‘viewer’ becomes integral to the experience and designers can create this space in a very similar way.

To conclude

Finally, there seems to be both excitement and concern about society’s technological advancements. With such polarisation and uncertainty, people are looking to our leaders in tech, politics and economics for answers and direction. Successful companies will likely benefit from their business models maintaining a human-centred lens, being transparent about data usage and having a voice in the conversation.

First published on https://www.enbdesign.studio

Emma Birch

Written by

I am a product designer at Deloitte Digital, passionate about human centred design, UX methodologies and how the advancements in tech will impact society.

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