South by Southwest’s (SXSW) origin story is a music festival born inside the “live music capital of the world”, Austin, Texas, exactly 30 years ago. In 2017 it has matured into a wide ranging festival bringing a stormy yet beautiful convergence of technology, film, music, futurists, big brands, art, exhibit showcases, start-ups, investors, interactive experiences, speaker panels, workshops, mentor sessions and more parties with open bars and secret performers than your wildest expectations thought possible.
So amongst this chaos, how do you survive it? And how do you conquer SXSW? What does that even look like? How do you do the things everybody talks about achieving? Network, make friends, learn, get inspired, feel your mind open up, be struck by the adrenalin pumping rush of ideas, power through hangovers, absorb information, not get overwhelmed and hit up all the best food trucks? (Hint: The Jackalope food cart on Sixth St is a gift to us all and a non-negotiable for anyone seeking out a new favourite dirty fast food I can promise and highly recommend the “diablo dog” for smoked jalapeno heaven).
The first rule of survival is to remind yourself you can check off this list over the five days and that when you try to fit it all into day one, well, SXSW has a learning curve. “Marathon and not a sprint” is a term bantered around by attendees and it’s a necessary mantra.
Part of the beauty of there being something chaotic about how “big” SXSW is, how generalised and non-specific; they offer 24 different tracks ranging from development & code to style, tech industry to making music, health, government, and brand to name only a few. But within the diversity of topics, you can seek out your niche as narrow as you want to go — if you’re after five days of pure virtual reality chat — you’ve got it. You can decide what your own version of success at SXSW is and you’re absolutely going to be able to nail that experience.
SXSW occupies multiple venues ranging between hotels, warehouses and bars around downtown Austin. This division adds to the magical quality of the festival where it feels as though it shrinks down to the events you’ve found yourself attending (Or maybe that’s just what I had to tell myself to banish getting choice paradox paralysis). I had an odd recurrent experience of exiting a room where I’d just spent an hour lost in the ideas of a person speaking, and feeling momentary surprise to see lines and lines of people outside.
To me, this is the secret to how despite there being something soaring close to 100,000 attendees of the festival, it just doesn’t really feel that big. And despite what grouchy SXSW veterans who’ve been going for the better part of a decade or more may rant all over internet blogs, as a new kid on the block, I discovered many moments of wild serendipity and spontaneous discoveries.
You can quickly dissect the layers of value the “Southby” experience brings to any individual, no matter their background or position. Starting with the most obvious which is learning through attending panel speaker sessions. Then you’ll find a multitude of opportunities to see many of the trends discussed come to life inside interactive exhibits put on by large brands. Here you discover everything from gamified spin cycle, to virtual reality tag, rock climbing walls, infinity rooms, documentaries told through virtual reality, mixed reality experiences where walls become controlled by and responsive to your touch, personality tests and beer recommendations given through AI and more zombie based VR games than there are open bar parties.
On top of all that mental stimulation and sensory overload, you simply can’t forget about the people. Before I arrived, I admit that my deepest fear was I’d somehow get through the entire week in Austin without making any human contact. How wrong I was. Instead I was frequently amazed by the impactful conversations you can have with the small serendipitous group who somehow showed up at the same talk or party you were at.
Highlights for me had to be meeting Pete Cashmore, CEO of Mashable, and him hooking me up with a VIP pass, a minute to sit down and chat with Jeff Zucker, President of CNN, taking selfies with YouTuber Casey Neistat, and hanging out watching live music at the closing party with Abe Cunningham, drummer from alternative rock band The Deftones.
But famous names aside, what unites you at Southby is the electricity in the air everyone is feeling. Whether I was talking to designers from Snapchat, a 17-year-old who’s already generating a million-dollar revenue in his recruitment business, skateboarders turned tech entrepreneurs, or the owner of a startup that capitalises on selling off empty seats inside private jets, any person I said “hello” to, they all had a story to share. Nothing sets your mind on fire like the supercharged conversations you have at SXSW.
I’ve spent a bit of time rereading my notes, jotting down memories, observations, feelings and ideas. What I’ve come to is this, the one biggest takeaway I got from SXSW in 2017, is that despite our all too common fear of dystopian machine ruled futures (movies suggest it’s not just me who worries about this) much of the most impressive innovation on display was united by its desire to emphasise our humanity and understanding of how we can keep learning to do better things as people and towards each other.
Explorations are being made in growing our capabilities for expressing deeper empathy through VR, to tell immersive stories in a way that better allows us to connect, to use technology so that we can learn more about helping each other and making the experience of life more comfortable for the billions on this planet who struggle every day either through physical disability, pain, illness, poverty, race, addiction, sexual orientation, gender, mental illness or multiples of the above.
The common theme expressed is that we are now in the age of Artificial Intelligence, no more waiting for its impending reveal, it is here. Personally, I found reassurance in the overwhelming goal demonstrated to apply these learnings and technological advances to make humanity better, protect our health, and to achieve social good. I am pretty excited for these positive applications to spread outside of the SXSW “bubble” and filter their way into our daily lives.
I left SXSW feeling optimistic, exhausted yet energised, and fascinated to think what the trajectory of progress will be over the next few years as this pace of rapid discovery shows no signs of slowing down.★