Stories from SxSW 2018

10th April 2018

I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH to attend SxSW this year and (due to other work commitments, slightly later than planned) would once again like to share a personal perspective on this show — some of what I saw and what I have taken away.

A long piece this, but you can see the separate sessions listed directly below, in case you want to dive in….

Elon Musk at The Moody Theatre

Why Ethereum is Going to Change The World

The Best Is Yet To Come — Digital Renaissance.

I’ve Got No Screens: Internet’s Screenless Future

Harnessing the Power of the ‘’Blind Share’’

Westworld: Establishing A Transmedia Franchise

Fort Worth Now

Wondery. A Network of Storytellers — Are You Listening?

– ‘Three Films’

Barton Springs

My primary areas of focus are the Interactive elements of the conference, although this year I managed to take-in some live music and see some films… more on this later.

Despite (or perhaps in spite of) the overwhelming depth and breadth of interactive content, it is often the slightly different, more surprising events that stand out the most at SxSW.

ONE SUCH EVENT, was Bernie Sanders being interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper, in a Town Hall session, that asked ‘#CanyoufeeltheBern?’ to a very sympathetic Austin audience. Similarly, when we heard Elon Musk was in town and was to appear, the next day at the Moody Theatre, this caused a predictable ‘Sx hubbub’ and early morning queueing to get a ticket.

Elon Musk at The Moody Theatre

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN (an old friend of Musk’s) acting as interviewer, started with the question — ‘Mars, how can we help?’ He then sought to coax responses out of a very considered, almost hesitant Musk, across topics including, SpaceX, Tesla and The Boring Company. Due to slower than expected progress with this last enterprise, Musk quipped that they had managed to put the ‘o’ into ‘bring’.

The discussion brought to life the dire straits that Musk was in at the end of 2008, when he had $35M dollars left, and did not have enough investment to support both his space and automotive ventures. Another failed SpaceX launch would have meant the end of the two of them.

Musk explained that his passion for space and adventure in general was inspired, both by the spirit of Ernest Shackleton and the Apollo programme; whilst his reasons for entering a specific area are based on two simple considerations –

1) Areas that don’t seem to be working

2) Ones that are important

With space he saw painfully slow progress, in great part because the ‘official’ system and its processes were overpriced. Breaking down the ‘constituent atoms’ of a rocket, he saw that the combined price of the separate elements, was considerably cheaper than the cost of the ‘off the peg’ product, being offered through established channels. Added to this, the assumption that rocket parts (apart from fuel) were not re-usable, was plain wrong.

As well as being a key constituent of the Starlink project, the latest launch also involved the best car commercial/stunt ever.

A big focus of the interview pertained to Musk’s perspectives on Artificial Intelligence, specifically it’s threat to the future of humanity. He drew a distinction between ‘Narrow AI’, which is already widespread (e.g. in Facebook’s algorithms) and the much greater threat from a possible Digital Super Intelligence, representing an ‘Immortal Dictator’ ; and the attendant risk of an existential crisis and new Dark Age.

Musk feels a more positive long-term future, in tune with humanity, could be derived via symbiosis with a benign version of AI. In line with the hypothesis of the technological singularity, this would see the conjunction of man and machine; via an extension of AI into a living system.

The area of A.I. governance was discussed and worryingly, it’s clear there is a real problem with monitoring and regulating diverse A.I. initiatives across the globe. One thought was to regulate the sale and distribution of carbon, an essential element in the development of A.I. systems.

Nolan asked about the practicalities of human habitation on Mars. Aside from joking that he would like to be first ‘Emperor of Mars’, Musk is in favour of open and direct democracy as a form of government; and ‘short laws’- as these are easier to understand and easier to revise. His take is that it is more important to be able to remove laws, than to add them. An approach which is quite different from most legislative approaches, here on Earth.


Why Ethereum is Going to Change The World — Interviewer Laura Shin ,interviewee Joseph Lubin, co-founder of Ethereum.

A VERY INTERESTING session looking at the likely path and possibilities of Ethereum’s future –

Ethereum technology is affecting a wide range of verticals, one in particular being the music industry. Lubin commented that currently, intermediaries take out 70% — 80% of the value in the system and blockchain is a good way of remedying this. With Ujo Music, artists register their preferred usage rights and take control of their product, and the value they are creating.

Lubin sees an opportunity for the technology to create a new kind of producer — consumer relationship; moving from adversarial (trying to persuade/coerce) to collaborative (or how people can work beneficially within a shared system). With this democratic approach to collaboration, comes an anti-protectionist stance on doing business; and the infinite, global scale of the system plus low cost of entry, further support this.

A discussion about the development of crypto-currencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, looked at the area of scalability. Currently, every single node running the Ethereum network has to process every single transaction that goes through the network. A smarter approach is the concept of blockchain sharding, where there is a split in the entire state of the network — into a bunch of partitions called shards, that contain their own independent piece of state and transaction history. In this system, certain nodes would process transactions only for certain shards, allowing the throughput of transactions processed in total across all shards to be much higher than having a single shard do all the work, as the Ethereum mainchain does currently.

An interesting question pertained to GDPR and how this would impact on the technology. This came across as a grey area, as there is no complete guarantee that a piece of information stored on the system could be irrevocably deleted, when required.

In the important area of security, Lubin was keen to promote the concept of a ‘utility token’, that would not have a full security level attached but could still have a value, if understood properly. Radically, he took this idea further, by suggesting there could be an intellectual assessment for customer involvement with the technology (in the same vein as means tests, or physical tests in existing areas) — i.e. you only qualify to use it, if you understand it.

Tokens could also be used in elections, where all those eligible have a token and so can vote (once) independently and verifiably, via the blockchain. Lubin calls this ‘liquid democracy’ .

The democratic aspect of the community is fundamental to cryptocurrency’s development. Examples are where Ethereum offers bounties to those who can find bugs in the system and the process of ‘forking’, which allows for the duplication of existing codebases. This practice can be helpful when efficiently duplicating information, but could be problematic if existing properties are illegally copied — for example where one ends up with Two Wall Street Journals….Somewhat counter-intuitively, it is also possible to ‘burn’ (destroy)bitcoins to increase the overall value of the market.


IN ANOTHER SESSION, some friends of The Digital Filter, Jim Bowes and Robert Belgrave, re-enacted the interactive dynamic of their Alexa Stop!Podcast, in the session — The Best Is Yet To Come — Digital Renaissance.

A wide-ranging debate, looked optimistically upon the current rapid pace of change, drawing a parallel with the creative explosion that started in Italy in the 15th Century.

Their view of the robot threat is less Elon Musk and more Simone Giertz’s, World of Shi**y Robots. This upbeat perspective referenced the Juvet Agenda, initiated September 2017, that seeks to create control in the AI space. From the website — ‘Together these questions ask how we can shape A.I. for a world we want to live in. If we don’t decide for ourselves what that world looks like, the technology will decide for us. The future should not be self-driving; let’s steer the course together.’

This positive perspective was further substantiated by a discussion around abundance — both in terms of mankind’s creative and technical skill, with the blockchain being such an example (see some of its uses on this great chart) but also in the area of natural resources. I was surprised to hear that we actually have no problem in the area of energy. We are provided, daily, with 8,000 times more energy than the earth actually needs (via sunlight), we just need to work out how to harness it.


ONE OF THE INTERESTING THINGS about Sx, is that whilst there are many presentations around similar topics, it is often quite difficult to call which ones will be good, and which ones won’t. Two such examples are — I’ve Got No Screens: Internet’s Screenless Future (very good) and A Conversational Future: Making Technology Adapt To Us (underwhelming). The latter session was a conversation between two Google honchos and, perhaps surprisingly, presentations from big organisations can often disappoint.

Here are some learnings from these combined sessions:

2013 was identified as the pivotal year for voice tech, with big improvements achieved via a combination of greater word accuracy and the impact of deep neural networks. Andrew Ng, commented on this progress from a user’s perspective, in his famous tweet — ‘As speech-recognition accuracy goes from 95% to 99%, we’ll go from barely using it to using all the time!’

To demonstrate the long, voice recognition/activation journey to this point, we were shown an early attempt at voice technology — IBM’s Shoebox, from 1961.

Following pivotal changes in 2013; 2014 is perceived as ‘year one’ for Voice Activation, and already it can be seen to be growing faster than smartphones at the same time in its history, using the launch of the iPhone in 2007 as the comparable start point. Not only is take-up faster, but it is being more quickly adopted by older generations. Not all older people are necessarily comfortable with the technology (see this great video of an Italian grandmother learning to use Google Home), but the adoption of voice is easy; as it is the first technology that will not need to be learnt. Intuitive by nature, unlike computers and phones, this technology will adapt to us, not the other way around.

I liked the perspective that with all connective technology, even with a keyboard, it’s always been a conversation, involving a ‘back and forth’ and ‘process and progress’. Only the process, for the consumer at least, is getting simpler.

Although it is likely, that the ‘screens of tomorrow will increasingly be speakers’; one element holding voice back are the different approaches being taken in the East and West. In order to really prosper, the approach needs to be a concerted global enterprise.

With the rise of voice technology, so comes the rise of the Screenless / Voice Marketer and Developer. These roles become essential as voice become the first filter and the main point of brand, consumer contact.

Some of the more obvious effects of V.A. will include — the complementing of human customer service with V.A.; the ‘long-tail’ impact on search (as voice searches are generally longer than text searches); and the rise of selling through voice search. Some less obvious effects may include — the monetisation of ‘conversation data’ and the rise of audio ads around questions (pre-roll, post roll). The future of voice apps is more open to question, as only 3% of apps are used actively in a given week.

The gamut of human connections, goes beyond voice of course — for example, the importance of gestures, as already addressed by SnapChat, Tinder and Spotify; but also the impact of the mind and our thought processes. Work in this area is still fairly nascent, but one example is in the area of thought-controlled drone flight. This example courtesy of Emotiv Epoc.

Understanding humanity and individual cultures is essential to understanding effective communication — as Peter Drucker (may have) said, ‘Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast.’ Understanding culture (the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society) is the essential starting point for an effective communications strategy.

The session looked at the optimal modes of thinking and approaches to utilise, in this space. These include the importance of successfully ‘evolving the mediation in a conversation’; the need to successfully translate intentions; and moving through 3 key stages of connection: the foundations of conversation, to changing the conversation, to better conversations.

As voice becomes more familiar, it becomes more relevant, and more effectively fulfils user journeys.

In terms of success metrics, search is currently interested with the accuracy of answers provided to questions asked — e.g. ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ — and metrics such as purchase, adoption and retention. Increasingly, we will be more preoccupied with new notions of ‘emotional success’ — such as engagement and happiness.

From a marketing perspective, there is a movement from ‘how your brand looks’ (old) to ‘how your brand looks at the world’ (new). From a consumer perspective, voice is about ‘being met where you are’.

A final thought, and watch-out, is that whilst voice shrinks the space between brand and consumer, getting artificial commercial conversations right, is hard.


Harnessing the Power of the ‘’Blind Share’’

THE PRESENTER HERE was Merrill Wasser, from Atlantic 57, the consulting and creative division of The Atlantic.

This session took a look at the fashion for sharing information without fully understanding the content. According to Wasser, 59% of links on Twitter are shared without being read. The New Scientist proved this recently by printing an article in Latin, under an interesting headline. The resulting article was extensively shared, but presumably not extensively read.

Wasser highlighted the need for content creators, to appreciate the time pressures their consumers are under. Starting from their consumers world view, the thought process for the content creator has moved from — ‘What do I want my consumers to understand?, to ‘How can I best understand my consumers?’

Another dynamic is the greater reliance on individuals sharing of content, following Facebook’s algorithm change. Because of this, and the time pressures of modern living, compelling headlines are more important; and brands must understand what ‘minimum viable exposure’ is needed, to encourage sharing. Consumers are looking for ‘quick depth’ — fast access to what they need to know before taking an action. Maximising these ‘micro-moments’ is essential to creating meaningful experiences.

And people are more likely to share Brands — content and product stories that they trust. The ideal combination is — (trusted) brand + (engaging) story = share. Brands don’t need clicks to survive, but they do need people to know and even love their stories. This (brand) values-based approach to content creation is a key to success, alongside content which is consistent in approach and has clearly discernible values.

People also have different availability at certain times, whether they are in the bathroom, commuting or at work; so, creating content of different lengths, 6 seconds, 6minutes, 30 minutes -will allow maximum connection across moments in time. In addition, low attention levels mean that re-using and re-surfacing of content makes good sense. In tune with the technique of ‘effective frequency’ in advertising; people may need to see the same content a few times for it to be effective.


Westworld: Establishing A Transmedia Franchise

THE STANDOUT ELEMENT of this Westworld Session (and to be honest, there was a fair amount of flannel) was discussion of how, at launch, the TV show was not positioned as an entertainment brand, but as a very high-end travel brand — with advertising in appropriate environments, such as FT’s How To Spend It.

“Live without limits” is the tagline for Westworld, a theme park where the line between human and artificial intelligence is blurry in HBO’s latest drama. When it came time to promote the show, HBO and its partners began with a simple premise: what if Westworld were real? Leading up to the premiere, HBO launched, a consumer-facing travel website introducing fans to Westworld. This was the award entry, for the campaign.

OVER IN EAST AUSTIN, I attended a session at Fort Worth Now, a SxSW House activated by friend of The Digital Filter, Visit Fort Worth. Running across two days, the first session was entitled Fort Worth in Flight, looking at the future travel, in the shape of air taxis and including a flight simulator courtesy of Bell Helicopters. Panellists included Uber Elevate, Bell Helicopters and Go Fly Prize,- a Boeing-sponsored competition pushing the boundaries of innovation, engineering, and transportation to create a personal flying device for anyone, anywhere.’ Exciting stuff, and you can see wrap-up videos Fort Worth Now, here — Day One and Day Two.

AFTER FIVE DAYS and over 25 sessions, mostly in brightly lit conference rooms, my last session provided a marked and delightful difference. This session was Storytelling In The Dark. Lights off, curtains drawn and blindfolds on; we listened to different podcasts and our minds raced to create colourful associated worlds. This was a great, relaxing way to sell the traditional world of spoken-word storytelling. Wondery. A Network of Storytellers — Are You Listening?


AS I MENTIONED ABOVE, I managed to fit in Three Films, all of which I’d highly recommend.

The Rider . This review from The Guardian: This Impressive, stylish bronco rider drama bucks the trend. Chloé Zhao’s distinctive new feature shows life among South Dakota’s star bronco riders, who play themselves in a kind of heightened documentary.

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned from a Mythical Man, traces the origin stories of the many legendary tales of Murray popping into other people’s lives, sometimes for five minutes and sometimes for five hours, rearranging the molecules in the room and disappearing just as mysteriously as he appeared.

Walking New York, One Block At A Time. The documentary “The World Before Your Feet” tracks a man’s quest to get to know his city better. After more than 8,500 miles, it remains a mystery.


AND…NO PIECE ABOUT AUSTIN, TEXAS, is really complete without mentioning one of my favourite places. The beautiful Barton Springs Municipal pool in Zilker Park. Despite a heavy work schedule, I did manage the odd dip in here…..(well worth a visit)

Nick Hammond . 10th April 2018