5 Lessons from SXSW 2018

Brandon K. Chicotsky, Ph.D.
Brandon K. Chicotsky, Ph.D.

Dr. Brandon K. Chicotsky is a business faculty member at Johns Hopkins University specializing in business communication. Since beginning university lectureship in 2014, Dr. Chicotsky has taught over 1,000 students in various topics ranging from information management to media entrepreneurship. His research interests center on media branding with interdisciplinary aspects of human capital valuations, organizational management, and corporate PR. Dr. Chicotsky may be reached at chicotsky@jhu.edu or on twitter @chicotsky.

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At SXSW, Dr. Chicotsky (left) met with several thought leaders that included Stephen Wolfram (right), the founder of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha. Dr. Wolfram is one of the contemporary pioneers of extractable knowledge for artificial intelligence.


Even the most ambitious and committed attendee could not attend all of the technological showcases and product launches at The South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, which is the formal name of the infamous SXSW. This conglomerate gathering converges many industry segments such as higher education, technology, renewable energy, automotive, venture capital, cinema, music, and more.

The two-week conference nearly consumes all of downtown Austin, Texas and features about 2,000 sessions while providing a platform for approximately 5,000 speakers. Over 70,000 attendees were logged this year. This was not my first SXSW, but it was still a novelty to be inundated with insights about emerging markets, technological trends, and industry convergence that may impact students entering the marketplace. Below, I share five takeaways:

1. Artificial Intelligence as Portrayed in Entertainment Media Foreshadows Reality

Elon Musk entered the stage at SXSW at the tail-end of a panel featuring the stars of the science fiction drama series, Westworld. The event was moderated by Jason Tanz from Wired, whose inclusion may seem like a topical deviation among actors, but as Musk suggested in his remarks, “moonshot” endeavors are propelled by the convergence of creativity and technological ambition. Artificial intelligence (AI), in particular, has its potential dystopian perils, which is the premise of Westworld and part of Musk’s recent warnings in news media about a dystopian future with AI. However, the technology also has the potential for otherworldly advances.

Jonathan Nolan, the co-writer for the movie Interstellar hosted another SXSW Q&A with Musk where the two admitted that AI will be essential for assisting future space endeavors. This concept is showcased (or “piloted”) first in art, as portrayed with the AI assistant android, “Cooper,” in the movie, Interstellar. Many media consumers have seen such technological showcases before in cinema productions, such as augmented reality imaging with AI integration in the movies, Minority Report and Iron Man II, among many other popular films. One such film that showcased technological concepts meant to galvanize futuristic thinkers was premiered at SXSW—Ready Player One.

2. Virtual Reality is Roaring Back

A few years ago, the “Pokemon Go” craze may have indicated the potential for mass adoption of virtual reality (VR) for social-entertainment endeavors, so it’s no surprise that virtual cinema would gain traction. SXSW included an extravagant, immersive VR exhibit, which was hosted by Steven Spielberg’s latest movie release, Ready Player One. This VR-themed film provides a VR experience in select theaters … of a VR experience. Along with premiering the movie at SXSW with Spielberg in attendance, attendees had opportunities to visit hundreds of companies developing cinematic VR products and experiences. Dell held a large week-long exhibit centered around VR gaming, while numerous companies provided prototypes and platforms for practical VR applications beyond entertainment. Some might postulate that “the future is already here” regarding technological capability with VR.

3. Distributed Ledger Technologies Are Here to Stay, But They Are Evolving

Among the most internationally diverse representatives of entrepreneurial enterprise at SXSW were companies focused on blockchain-based solutions. As explained in numerous panels, meet-ups, and grandiose vision-setting speaking segments, Blockchain technology consists of amendable ledgers that enable multiple parties to transact through “proof of stake” or “proof of work” protocols. The ledger is typically accessible and visible to transacting parties as a verifiable record. This “trustless” system presents opportunities to decentralize validation and mediation systems where rent-seeking entities are often positioned. As demonstrated by hundreds of company product launches and on-floor hiring discussions at the SXSW exhibit hall, market applications are plentiful and include the sharing economy or gig economy. As proposed by many startups in the blockchain space, this technology could eliminate the need for third-parties that take fees, mediate contracts, and verify user identities.

Much of the discourse around blockchain advances surprisingly strayed from price speculation of cryptographic trading assets (i.e., cryptocurrency). To coders, technologists, and marketers directly involved in blockchain projects, this topic seemed like “children’s fodder.” While blockchain protocols have gained popularity through “store of value” protocols (e.g., Bitcoin and Ethereum), there are structural changes in the ledger systems that are gaining traction to solve scalability limitations, which was a more prominent topic at SXSW. These advances include divergent ledgers, which avoid collective block-hosting of data by connecting two users in the transaction with the option of recording their transaction. Hashgraphs, as another alternative, do not necessitate a consensus among all participants in the ledger system which expedites transactions. There are also blockchain solutions for Bitcoin (e.g., the Lightning Network) and Ethereum (e.g., sharding) that galvanized SXSW attendees. These coding advances aim to increase transactions-per-second dramatically, which will inspire significantly more market applications.

4. Technology is Paving a Pathway Forward for the Automotive Industry

SXSW offers “tracks” for attendees, which are a series of events and sessions with a thematic focus. One of the tracks was called “Intelligent Future,” which was co-hosted by Mercedes-Benz. This track explored “smart cities,” automated driving (i.e., driverless vehicles), innovative mobility systems (e.g., powered scooters), personal assistants utilizing AI, and Internet sequencing into consumer products in the home [i.e., the “Internet of Things” (IoT)]. Among the handful of companies showcasing automotive products was Google, which utilized renewable energy-powered vehicles to shuttle attendees around the conference. The starting point for these shuttles was a three-story house featuring a walk-through exhibit of IoT, voice-command robotics. Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, hosted a mini-festival within the SXSW festival that featured IoT integrations in vehicles, automated safety advances, new vehicle designs, and concept-cars centered on rider access to media and Internet functions.

5. Data Still Reigns

SXSW converges marketplaces involving the arts, business, education, and technology. Whether a company operates in an industry silo or is part of an intersection of multiple verticles, data seems ubiquitous and serves as a common denominator. For some companies, data is their product, while others serve as a catalyst to host user activity for data aggregation. The quantity of data-centered discussions on the SXSW schedule provided a clear sense that data concerns among companies and attendees was paramount. Understandably, there is increasing interest among user populations online for transparency of data collection and usage.

Social media companies at SXSW seemingly aimed to rebrand and redirect the data conversation by portraying constructive uses for information-gathering, such as curating personalized content and creating “interest graphs” that provide users visual cues of their own activities for self-discovery. AI was often infused in data discourse and platform showcases to demonstrate the benefits, novelty, and potential favorability of customized experiences online. On the regulatory side, government officials offered sessions with strong statements calling for data regulation and a governing body to oversee deal-flow between marketers, advertisers, and data partners. At the center of the conversation were users, who may continue to agree to terms online and later generate a groundswell of indignation and discontent for a perceived misappropriation of trust regarding data.

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