Russ Shaw is founder of Tech London Advocates. In this article, he provides a summary of the tech presence at this year’s SXSW festival.
Every year in Austin we get to glimpse into the future, as top technology professionals come together to have a beer and share their latest work. This year gadgets took a back seat, and the issues, not the apps, dominated the headlines at South by Southwest (SXSW).
There was no sign of the next Twitter or Periscope. Instead, we were confronted with major issues, ranging from security and violence to diversity and employment. Not only is the personal political, now it’s seems that technology is too.
One thing that is clear from the buzz is this industry is no longer reserved for the stereotypical techies and trekkies. Tech is grappling with challenges facing nations. Political risk is soaring, from the migrant crisis in Syria to the US elections and the upcoming EU referendum. As ever, tech entrepreneurs set their sights on our greatest challenges.
Against this backdrop, who better than the President of the United States to set the tone? In his opening remarks, Barack Obama addressed the fact that tech should be an enabler of democracy, making it easier for citizens to inform themselves of issues and cast votes. The first presidential candidate to embrace technology remains committed to using it to compliment public engagement. In Austin he was among those who shared, even exceeded, this enthusiasm.
This political focus took place against an expectation of science fiction coming true. London-built DeepMind bested a grandmaster of the ancient and highly complex game of Go, a full ten years earlier than experts predicted. Virtual reality was present all over Austin, and will soon enter the mainstream. Around the world we are even seeing national central banks developing their own cryptocurrencies, the ultimate sign of the establishment embracing tech.
Yet these exciting breakthroughs in politics and tech remain stubbornly incremental. DeepMind is years ahead of forecasts, but its success is based on applied mathematics, and artificial intelligence is several more breakthroughs away from achieving free-thinking status. Cryptocurrency is being developed based on the competing interests of libertarians and central bankers, mirroring similar struggles between ad blockers and digital marketers.
One challenge common to tech and politics that is being addressed incrementally is a lack of diversity. A panel gave statistics and examples of the social media harassment faced by journalists who are female or from a minority background. Others used data to show the benefits of a diverse workplace, showing how different cultures and experience help problem solving. The need for greater diversity was evident, as one panel discussing harassment of women received bomb threats. We have a long way to go towards achieving equality as an industry, but the will to make this change is stronger than ever.
Overall, the festival left me feeling optimistic. Technology is changing the world for the better, through the toil and patience of entrepreneurs and engineers. The goals of affordable tech, energy efficient transport and discrimination-free workplaces are being pursued by some of the world’s brightest individuals.
Some were disappointed by the fact that there was no headline breakthrough this year, but I was reassured to see that our industry is continuing to put in hard yards to tackle problems that are not easily solved. I hope to attend next year in a climate where technology is a bit cheaper and more advanced, and our industry is increasingly more diverse.
The emphasis on policy and progress that I saw this year gives me something that President Obama would certainly approve of – hope.