Four Ways of Looking at South By Southwest

What do these four SXSW panels have in common?

Panelists at a SXSW session today titled “Connected World 2025: How Can You Plug in Now?”

A newcomer could be forgiven for thinking there are at least four different conferences going on this week in Austin, Texas.

This year is my 10th or so trip to South By Southwest, and the other day I let happenstance plus a little planning guide me to four sessions in the Austin Convention Center, each different than the rest. I’d like to tell you about them as a way of sharing my appreciation for the genius of this annual celebration of creativity and connections.

  1. Connected World 2025: How Can You Plug In Now?

Some sessions at South By are for people who are creating the future as opposed to talking about it, the latter being what my sort mainly does. This panel comprised four women who place millions of dollars of bets on startups they think will succeed in building out the Internet of Things. The IoT, as it’s known to its friends and foes, was made up of more than 8.4 billion things that can connect to the Internet in 2017. Gartner estimates that number will grow to 20.4 billion by next year. One example: a robot night watchman for offices and factories. Yes, robots will take jobs from people, but they’ll start with jobs few of us want, like staying awake all night in an empty office building, checking the occasional ID of a real person, emptying wastebaskets. Another strategy for making money in IoT: look to old industries, like trains. One startup is making advanced sensors that track train traffic in real time in enough detail to improve safety and efficiency. Even though I sometimes don’t understand a lot of what’s being said in this sort of a SXSW panel, I love sitting in. It’s where I feel the future actually arriving, in dollars and business plans, enabled by very smart women who don’t feel a need to convince me of anything. They just do deals and make stuff happen.

2. Trust in Distrustful Times

“This is one of the sessions I’m most excited about,” SXSW program director Hugh Forrest intoned at the start of this one. Hugh is my hero. For the past 25 years he has kept South By fresh, bold, and unpredictable. He’s a tall, lanky, awkward guy with hawk-like vision.

I get why he was excited about Neil Pasricha, director of the Institute of Global Happiness. I’d never heard of Neil, but I quickly fell under his plain-speaking, emotionally wise spell. His three-part recipe for building trust began with choosing the finite over the infinite. We’re all overwhelmed with information, right? So we trust someone who steps forward with 5 Things You Need to Know. Thank you. Five is all I can handle at the moment. I’m going to remember this one when I put tomorrow’s episode of The Kindle Chronicles together. “We look for things that end,” Pasricha said. Remember when you’d pick up your newspaper, start at Page One, flip through the rest of it and be finished with the news till tomorrow? Sounds like heaven, right?

His second tip for creating trust was as follows: “In an era of bots we trust brains,” like Vish, the brainy and enthusiastic Uber driver in Toronto who has a 4.99 rating after 5,000 rides. The human touch still works. When Pasricha stepped into Vish’s car, the driver turned around and exclaimed, “Is it Neil? Is it Neil?” Thus began a beautiful friendship that led to a podcast, a Fast Company article, and a book in the works.

Final Tip: Go All In / Show All In. Exhibits A and B were Craig’s Cookies, a Toronto bakery that sells nothing but cookies, and the burger chain Five Guys Burgers & Fries. Another guy who goes all in is Frank Warren, founder of PostSecret. Warren came out on stage for the second half of the hour and told the story of his community art project made up of anonymous postcards that people send from all over the world to his home. Each contains a secret. Warren publishes a selection of the on his website. All in.

The Trust presentation illustrates what I think of as the Big Idea category of South By talk. Someone like Neil Pasricha has spends years pondering a topic like trust and brings it to Austin polished and ready for Ballroom D. These events are like TED Talks for nerds. I’m a nerd, and I like them a lot.

3. Alexis Jones

A third type of South By Southwest presentation showcases a person more than an idea. That’s what the session with Alexis Jones was about. The founder of the I Am That Girl movement, Jones is an empowered woman who coaches professional male athletes to be vulnerable, to treat women with respect, and to understand how society is changing. She also works with girls and women, and her current web site is titled “I Am That Human.” Her Texan parents were in the audience, proud as Sam Houston. At the end of her talk Jones hinted broadly that she is thinking of running for Governor of Texas. Stay tuned.

4. How and Why We Need to Decentralize Social Media

Larry Sanger, a cofounder of Wikipedia, rounded out my day with a fourth category of South By sessions. Call it a Call to Action. Knowing that the conference attracts technology early adopters and industry leaders, Sanger presented a call to wrest control of our Tweets and Facebook updates from their huge platforms via open-source protocols that would enable us to control the use of our own data. He envisions industry leaders coming together to write a manifesto followed by a Social Media Strike, perhaps on July 4, 2019. Might millions of us stay off social media as we know it for 24 hours in order to shake things up? South By Southwest is a good place to find out.

What do these four sessions have in common? They all took place at South By Southwest, a gathering that keeps reinventing itself — props to Hugh Forrest and his team— and keeps making it worth my while to travel from Denver to Austin each March. Onward!