SXSW 2018 Tackled the Tough Topics Surrounding Tech

March 22, 2018 - 8 minutes read

South by Southwest (SXSW) is many things to different people. But although it’s touted as the “the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries,” there is always one underlying central theme running through all of the various subject matters encapsulated in the event — progression.

SXSW 2018 was no different in this regard. The past year has been a tough one for tech, and this year’s SXSW reflected this sentiment. It also marked the year that SXSW became more than just a convention to discuss the latest tech; it has become a forum where we can discuss developing issues as tech becomes more prominent in our lives.

A Different Perspective

Some things about SXSW don’t change. Yes, there were a bunch of quirky, innovative tech demos to try out. Yes, Elon Musk made a surprise visit and discussed the trials of entrepreneurship and the future of space travel. But even at a glance, it was hard not to recognize that change was in the air.

In one panel, we had Alexandra Hardiman, Facebook’s head of news product, defending the giant social media platform’s recent fumbles with fake news: “For us, we historically within Facebook did not distinguish between different types of news, and that was problematic,” she explained. “Flattening the news meant you couldn’t always tell the difference between something that was trusted and credible, versus something fraudulent.”

In another panel nearby, Nina Shaw, co-founder of the Time’s Up campaign, emphasized that this was just the beginning of the MeToo movement: “I think there’s a bunch of guys waiting for this to be over. It’s never going to be over.” The spotlight at this year’s SXSW wasn’t fixated on the hottest app or coolest demo, but rather on major issues like surveillance, cybersecurity, sexual harassment, the current political climate, and the current struggles with social media.

The Biggest Problem for Social Platforms Right Now

Fake news, harassment, and hate speech… none of these words are descriptors that social media pioneers would want to be associated with their platforms, but this is the reality of social media today.

“Fifteen years ago, when we were coming here to Austin to talk about the internet, it was this magical place that was different from the rest of the world,” says Ev Williams, one of the founders of Twitter and current CEO of Medium. “When we built Twitter, we weren’t thinking about these things. We laid down fundamental architectures that had assumptions that didn’t account for bad behavior. And now we’re catching on to that.”

During her panel, Hardiman made no illusion of the seemingly insurmountable problems facing social media: “I don’t think it’s a losing battle, but I think it’s a really hard one.” Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, took a more blunt approach to the subject. His presentation started with a reading of various hateful, racist, and threatening social media posts about himself.

At a time when London is in the middle of reinventing itself as the tech hub of Europe, Khan believes it is necessary to be proactive in ending these growing problems in social media before they balloon into bigger dilemmas. And if tech companies don’t want to step up to the task, then he thinks imposing fines on them for not doing so would be the next logical move. While many naysayers equated this to trying to end free speech, Khan addressed this perspective before leaving the stage: “This isn’t about depriving people of free speech — this is about inciting hatred. This is about things that divide our community.”

Evolution Means Equality

Of course, any system of checks and balances is worthless if the company employing it does not practice it outside of what the public sees. We’ve recently seen this play out in the implosion of peer-to-peer ridesharing service Uber, and more tech companies will certainly follow suit if they don’t address this now.

Melinda Gates was one of the big speakers at this year’s SXSW. Known for helming the development of multiple multimedia products at Microsoft in the 1980s, Gates left the company to focus on her philanthropic foundation with husband Bill Gates. While most people would assume that her presentation would revolve around something to do with this, Gates threw everyone a curve ball by focusing on equality in the workforce.

“The status quo… is holding all of us back,” Gates said in an overcrowded ballroom of the Austin Convention center. “We absolutely know there are more women in the workforce. But whether the workplace has changed for women? I will say marginally.”

Paying It Forward

Everyone has some form of help in becoming who they are, but not everyone acknowledges this. To move into the future together, Gates believes this is an essential part of the recipe: “Everyone has someone — a teacher, a parent, a leader who called them out – who helped them get where they are. You need to pay it forward and pull people along with you.”

It’s easy for people to believe they’re self-made or the sole reason for a product’s success; to stand onstage alone with nothing but a black turtleneck and your company’s latest innovation certainly paints it that way. But that’s honestly the easy route. To give credit to the dozens of engineers who made the innovation possible, to give credit where it’s due — that’s the hard part.

Progression in Every Sense of the Word

While SXSW 2018 may reflect a different event than the years before, it’s still very much focused on the subject of moving forward. But instead of the usual buzz-generating product launches and tech demos, it’s made room for possibly more important topics.

A better, brighter future means addressing the problems that hold us back as a society, and sometimes that simply doesn’t boil down to a cool new camera feature developed for a mobile app. This may not be as exciting at face value as the usual subject matter for SXSW, but it does adhere to the true meaning of the event much better: improving our future.

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