Too Much and Not Enough – SXSW Interactive 2016

nasarobot2I’m sure there is some way to do this conference right and I never manage it. When interactive ends, I’m tired, dehydrated, malnourished and brain dead. This is a big expense and my clients don’t appreciate me disappearing for 10 days, so I feel I’ve got to take advantage of every moment, see every panel, go to every party, look at all the trade show booths…it’s too much. I do this every year but I can’t stop myself. Every time I think I’ll take a break or get lunch or go back to the room to nap something catches my eye on the schedule and I end up on another death march to another hotel for another panel.

This isn’t the best time for me to do this write up, but if I don’t do it now it will never happen. I’m going to take a deep breath and do a quick summary and try to be fair, because I did have some great moments.

My biggest takeaway from the panels I went to on privacy, security, encryption, internet of things, and big data is that we are FUCKED as far as privacy goes. There is no regulation coming anytime soon to make sure the connected devices that are coming into our homes are secure. I mean seriously – nothing is worse than watching five smart panelists, including lawyers and senators, sit in uncomfortable silence when an audience member ask if there is ANY plan. Then to hear them mumble about companies self regulating. And say the government can’t keep up with tech. And that no one wants to stifle innovation. These are our leaders??

People are bringing devices like the Amazon Echo into their homes and they have no idea what these devices are doing at any given moment. You’ve likely heard the story of the Echo responding to a voice on the radio and changing the temperature of thermostat?

Another big part of the problem is that once you purchase a device, the company does not have any obligation to keep the software on it up to date or patch it is a security weakness is exposed.

On a more positive note, I attended a couple of robotics/AI panels and the news there is better. Everyone seems to realize that robots can’t be black boxes. We have to understand what they are doing, why, and be able to anticipate what they will do next. They need to react to humans and give feedback and behave within the constraints of human social norms.

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A cool VR gaming “accessory” – a pod with 360 degree rotation

A woman told a great story of being frustrated in a robotics lab she worked in when she was blocked by a robot parked in front of a door. She squeezed around it and got yelled at because she ruined the experiment. It was trying to figure out how to get through the door. She said – how would I know that? They all realized the robot needs to give physical cues humans can understand and so now they are working with people from Pixar (Maybe? I forget which animation place) to develop simple motions to express thinking, frustration, failure, success–not with some fake face but gestures. The boxy robot scratches its head when thinking, slumps when it fails at a task, etc.

Researchers found a robot with a spherical head is perceived as more intelligent, so they have purposefully made their robot with a small square head to indicate it is NOT smart. A panelist argued robots should never be humanoid unless they are as smart as us (which is not going to happen anytime soon) because we feel tricked and frustrated when a human-looking thing doesn’t act human.

Also I feel a lot better about what we call AI thanks to Kevin Kelly. He is convinced that AI’s will do very specific tasks very well. An AI might drive a car and that’s it. It won’t be the same one that is running your insulin pump. No master AI will control everything.

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The state of virtual reality now: Everyone in the same room looking at different things

Also, VR headsets were everywhere. Even in the pathetic MacDonald’s lounge. I asked the guy at the front door what VR had to do with MacDonalds and he shrugged. “Nothing. It’s just supposed to be fun.” Hey, great marketing!

KW

On the more creative side, I was inspired by panels by directors, actors, and writers. I’ll need to go back and listen to these again. Hopefully SXSW puts up the recordings. Kerry Washington talked about negative comments “about her” on social media as being more about the people leaving the comments. They are “sharing” information about themselves, so the meaner the comment…

Ira Glass was candid and down to earth. I especially enjoyed him talking about Mike Birbiglia, writer and director of the movie “Don’t Think Twice.” Glass said Birbiglia was shameless in asking for help from anyone and everyone to get the script for the movie in shape. He showed the script to Glass who initially thought there was nothing there, no movie. And Birbiglia kept at it roping everyone in, getting feedback, making changes. And the movie premiered here!

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Ira Glass makes a balloon animal for an audience member

It was fun to see the women from Broad City all dressed up and professional, and to hear  them to declare they are NOT like their characters insofar as they work really hard and know what they want from life.

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The actors and writers from the TV show Silicon Valley were really funny (improv style). When asked why there weren’t more women on the show, the writer/director said the real silicon valley is something like 89% white dudes, so that is how he casts the show. I understand. He is holding up a mirror and we are meant to both laugh and realize the stuff going on here is pretty awful.

siliconvalley

The evening events were overcrowded and underwhelming. In years past parties seemed to have more of a theme and some hands-on activities. The parties we managed to get in to (many had lines around the block and were also at capacity) all had DJs playing so loud it was next to impossible to have a conversation – or to meet anyone and network. I met a few interesting people but ended up with only a couple business cards. Last year I got dozens.

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Mr. Robot F Society evening party – had a line around the block & we never got in

Another barrier to meeting people is the ubiquity of phones. Waiting in line used to be a great place to get to know people, as was waiting for a panel to start, now 90% of everyone is heads down on a phone. I was really sad about this. Before striking up a conversation was a kindness, now it’s an interruption.

One weird thing about SXSW is the “shadow” events that take place at the same time. All around town restaurants and bars are closed for private parties and the huge corporate-branded spaces are usually open to badge-holders during the day, then privatized at night for who knows what. Adding to the complexity are events and spaces that are “public” but RSVP-only. All this ends up creating a strange atmosphere. When you look around the place feels like a big party but when you try to join in, there are barriers.

Kroll

I did RSVP to the Fast Company Grill and really enjoyed it. It is one of the only branded spaces here that makes sense. So many sponsored parties here have logos everywhere, the bar staff in logo t-shirts and…no information about what the company does and no representatives. Fast Company is a magazine. They had magazines out. They had drinks and food, but also speakers and panels by people they feature in the magazine. Great! Got it! Marketing success. Though, I don’t read the magazine so…?

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The Director and cast of “Don’t Think Twice” at the Fast Company Grill

I’m not sure that interactive is working for me anymore. I tried to be zen this year and let whatever happens happen, but it frustrates me that there is an ideal sequence of panels I could go to each day but the venues are so spread out (the convention center itself is nearly a kilometer end to end) that I cannot physically get from place to place and even if I managed to get there, the panel might be full. I also miss the publishing/writing track they used to have.

Nothing blew my mind and I can’t help but worry that it’s my own fault. If only I’d gone to that other panel. Maybe I wasn’t listening hard when the speaker said the really important thing. Maybe I should have introduced myself to the people next to me who were so damn intent on updating their facebook pages. And then I felt annoyed that I was blaming myself. It’s okay to hate lines and crowds and maybe conferences with more than 80,000 people aren’t for me.

Shrug. Sometimes everything aligns and sometimes nothing happens. Maybe I’ve just been to this too many times and it is too familiar and my WOW bar is raised too high.

Heh. I sometimes feel the universe is a little too interested in making me eat my words. And making me eat them RIGHT NOW. I’m writing this at an outdoor café and the man one table over heard me mentioning VR to a friend of mine that stopped by. He came over to show me one of those little VR/phone cardboard things that he said had a documentary on it and that he could more fully connect emotionally with the movie thanks to the VR. He is a documentary filmmaker from Finland who is investigating ways to rewrite theater plays for VR. He sat down, we chatted about the conference, about Nokia’s new $60k VR camera (which I hadn’t heard of), about Finland, about people being on their phones all the time.

Then, he gave me his card.

I realized my chances of meeting a VR documentary filmmaker from Finland as I trudge through my usual routine in San Francisco are precisely ZERO. I need to take a deep breath, and a nap, eat some vegetables, and embrace the big mess that is SXSW because my WOW bar is way out of alignment and my perspective is messed up. I met an astronaut. And a wheelchair-bound cattle farmer from north Texas with a concealed carry permit who’s lost 80% of his trees due to drought. A guy from the U.K. who is the CEO of a startup destined to fail (sorry). A woman from the DoD who runs all their websites. I discussed EMPs with a guy from a senate intelligence committee. A woman walked up to me last night and said, “I met you in Berlin,” and she was right!

Maybe I will come back.

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I actually understood Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks – a first!

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