SXSW 2017 Recap: Jetlag edition
After many years of missing out for one reason or another, 2017 was the year I got to experience the annual pilgrimage our industry makes to SXSW for myself. I was not disappointed.
If you’re not familiar with SXSW, South by Southwest is an annual conglomerate of film, interactive media, and music festivals and conferences that take place in mid-March in Austin, Texas, United States. It began in 1987, and has continued to grow in both scope and size every year.
Having arrived back in London today, my brain hurts. Eastbound jet lag with my 6’4 frame is never fun but on this occasion, the discomfort is from the sheer volume of incredible content I’ve consumed and the people I’ve met over the last seven days. The discomfort that it’s twelve months till I can do it all again.
Here’s a brief cross-section of two of the more diverse talks I enjoyed to give you an idea of why you simply must attend next year if you get the chance.
DARK DAYS: AI and the Rise of Fascism by Kate Crawford from Microsoft Research
Kate Crawford is a leading researcher, academic and author who works on the social implications of data, machine learning and AI. In 2016, she co-chaired the White House symposium AI Now, and recently wrote about AI and discrimination in The New York Times.
The session she delivered was intelligent, humorous and challenging. It was in a 5 pm slot so we were already worn out from a busy day of amazing sessions but spurred on by the enthusiasm of another member of our group, along we went to see what Kate had to say.
The core theme of the session was that AI is only as good as the data it’s trained with and that we run a serious risk of programming the systems of tomorrow with the bias of the past. Reminding the audience of Mussolini’s use of ‘make Italy great again’ during his regime as a fascist dictator in the 1920s resonated with everyone in the room to drive this point home.
On a lighter note, here’s a more humorous example she shared of an image recognition algorithm being 99.7% certain the picture below was a shower cap. Great stuff Kate, even Her Majesty would have laughed at that one.
They’re Going to Hate This & Think I’m Full of Shit by Michael Nieling from Ocupop
Michael Nieling is a designer, educator, and father. He is the Creative Director at Ocupop and also co-founder of Lanona Shoes, Kunoa Cattle Company, and Autowatts. During his time at the helm of Ocupop, he’s delivered work for Google, Facebook and Mozilla. He also designed the HTML5 logo.
This talk resonated with me because I have wrestled with similar issues in my career. Imposter syndrome is something a lot of business leaders deal with at some point in their lives and while it is often a source of great drive and strength, it can also lead to dark places too.
Michael delivered an energetic piece on his life story, sharing the intimate details of the highs and lows he’d experienced along the way. He explained how he developed an approach he dubbed the ‘Charm / Hustle’ cycle. Always saying yes then figuring out how to deliver something later. This ultimately culminated in a strong belief that ‘nothing comes from no’ which became a guiding light for him for many years. Building on this he developed his own personal yin/yang which he dubbed Shit yeah/Fuck no. To start the session he proclaimed ‘I want them drunker!’ and handed out cold beers in branded coolers to the entire audience. We knew we were in for an entertaining hour.
The thing which really resonated with me was his commentary around how his self-doubt caused him overtrain, over prepare and ultimately succeed in any situation that he came up against. The problem with this approach was it came at a familiar cost. It was powerful to hear him talk about how he managed to change his life from one all consumed by work, to one with a healthy work-life balance, and that his career is prospering not suffering as a result.
Two quotes I loved:
“Using X.ai to book me by is a great vetting process because anyone who gets into an argument with a robot is an asshole.” I tweeted this and the founder/CEO of x.ai seemed to rather like it too.
But to cap it off, he ended with this:
“The best thing about telling the truth, you never have to think about what to say.”
Wise words indeed. I certainly don’t have to think about recommending SXSW2018 to anyone who’s made it this far down the article.
If you’re interested to hear more, I thoroughly recommend coming along to the event BIMA are running, ‘SXSW Hair of the dog‘ featuring a wide range of amazing speakers sharing their highlights.