Product development and management
Until last year I was not familiar with SXSW. Boasted as one of the largest tech conferences, and with a history spanning over 30 years, its loud performances somehow didn’t make it across the Atlantic Ocean, or if they did, the wind was not blowing in my direction.
I then happened to notice one announcement that mentioned this conference focused in the intersection between technology and art and decided to tune in to the content live streamed on facebook. Watching some videos of the talks of the 2017 event, back then, that connection seemed to be real.
On the other side of the ocean, in Lisbon, since 2015, we have Web Summit, also claiming to be one of the biggest tech conferences. Like in Southby there are dozens of talks with prominent figures of the tech world, addressing the hot topics of the moment such as VR, AI or Blockchain.
However there is one thing that strikes me as particularly different, the proud connection with the arts world that its Texan contender shows. True, some of the talks in Web Summit, usually in the last days, have musicians as hosts, but the focus is always in more “uptight” tech or at least there is not such an artsy vibe around it.
Just as London Major Sadiq Khan remarked, looking at the hipster avocado socks in an interview this year, at the event’s Facebook Studio, to the live stream host Douglas Caballero — he had never seen such a large number of hipsters. (To which the host responded by proudly by putting his feet on the table so that everyone in the remote audience could see).
If someone from London is surprised at the quantity of hipsters at a tech conference, then perhaps someone from other city in Europe would be even more surprised: this marriage between art and tech is not so often proudly displayed.
hipster, noun informal: a person who follows the latest trends and fashions, especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream.
Moving beyond socks and appearances, something more profound grants this conference — at least to the remote spectator — a different vibe. The intersection between digital and art is expressed by the panels on music, TV and film production or VR and AR enabled journalistic narratives, where the creative side takes the lead, while technology, not less proudly, assumes the supporting role.
Moving also beyond the previous definition, a hipster always struck me as someone who was deeply sensitive to the arts, and that when spotted at these events, would be signaling that indeed a connection between art and tech had been well achieved.
This year, Lyor Cohen— a legendary music executive that broke in artists such as Run-DMC or the Beastie Boys, went to stage to talk about his new role the Head of Music for Google / YouTube.
After an overview of the ups and downs of his career in music, which turned out to be an overview of the history of hip hop as well, he concluded by explaining his acceptance of the challenge to work with the giants shaping the industry and contribute to the to the development of the industry he saw being disrupted from the first row.
VR Director Nonny de la Peña displayed how she used the technology to make people more aware of topics such as police violence or incarceration, and while most of it seemed to be along the lines of “bleed and lead” — a term I learned later that week when attending the Women in VR meetup at Altspace, it is clear how VR can be such an entry point for other journalists and artists to begin start using technology on their creations.
Sasha Samochina, Immersive Reality Producer at NASA, confessed she was amused every time someone asked, in surprise, what an artist was doing there and talked about projects such as Accessmars.com in which the public can interact with images collected by the Curiosity Rover, and how she developed a fun first-person personality for the organization’s twitter account.
There is the case, also, in which technology is liberated from its supporting role and becomes itself the focus of discussion.
There was a talk with the crew of Westworld — a dystopia about a technological advanced Wild West where robots exist to please the desires of visitors — whose first season was one of the most watched HBO original series.
It seems that speculative implications about the dark side of technology, captured by series such as this and Black Mirror, is making its way into individual tv screens, prompting people to think about philosophical issues, such as the nature of reality or ethics, quite different from the light-heartedness of other tv series that used to be big hits.
In a panel with Melinda Gates, the CEO of TaskRabbit, the COO of Hearst Magazines and a co-founder of the “Time’s Up” Movement, talked about the issues regarding women in tech (and overall), implying that that the movement is “here to stay” and perhaps even that no longer “laissez-faire” is acceptable to deal with the fast-paced change our society is undergoing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, correspondent of the Atlantic and author of the Black Panther series for Marvel Comics, in a keynote, repeatedly stressed the difference between a journalist and activist (and the claim that he belonged to the former category).
According to him, while the latter had the purpose of making people act, the first didn’t. But anyone watching the movie knows the power of narrative that runs counter the “white-hero stereotype” seen in most of the movies can have in bringing people to conceive alternative futures for a society. One in which different people can be seen at the edge of technological advancement.
We are now used to the title of “something / activist” being displayed to introduce someone about to give a speech in a tech conference, and that was not the case some years ago.
One of the other appearances that magnetized the audience was the one of New York times bestselling autho and psychotherapist Esther Perel. While on stage, she avidly answered questions from the millennial audience, addressing topics such loneliness (which she claims to be one of the major health problems in the US), the impacts of social media and the overall the need to bring the quality of relationships to the top of the agenda.
Just by looking at the top charts of books sold, where more than one title of self-help type is likely to be present, it is clear that these topics are of concern to swats of people that are finding this advice crucial to deal with the amount of change our society is undergoing.
And while all of this had some connection with technology there was space for talks about things that were almost purely analogue, like for example watching Run-DMC talk about his new series of comics books on the live TuneIn channel at SXSW.
This seems quite unlikely to happen at other conferences , but somehow gives it a more human touch, as people are still living in analogue and digital worlds, and have not made the full transition in one fell swoop as these major conferences tend to make us think — at least in Lisbon it seems that once in an year, everyone in society is involved working in tech projects, while the reality, once you leave the conference rooms, is not like that.
Having said that I am looking forward to seeing more avocato socks rocking their laptops, but more profound than that, a proudly displayed marriage between art and tech, because that is what is happening in any case.
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