South by Southwest 2012: a Recap of Big Ideas

SXSW has come and gone in yet another year, and more recaps of technology have come and gone with it.  Around the parties and in the Austin Convention Center there was a buzz about how little buzz there was; it felt, very much, like a year of bigger ideas and paradigm shifts than a year of breakout “it girl” startups.  Why is that?

Technology surges.  As Carlota Perez describes in her seminal work Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital (2002), technological shifts occur in regular cycles with identifiable characteristics.  (A good summary of the work is here).  Perez’s research suggests that each cycle happens in two phases of twenty to thirty years each.  In the first phase, new, often young entrepreneurs bring technology to market, funded by financial investors; this often fuels a sort of bubble as this technology is adopted.  Then there is a turning point, in which technology leaps into wider-spread use, and the investors become production capital (read: larger organizations & companies). 

A number of factors suggest we’ve been in a multi-year turning point, and we’re watching production capital push into the communications & internet space.  One indicator is the internet’s arrival in a legion of inanimate, big company products; this is similar to what Altimeter describes in “sentient world” research theme, also announced at the conference .  Another is the massive adoption of smartphones and tablets this year.  The internet is leaving the desk, leaving our laps and has arrived in our hands, on our bodies, throughout our homes, and in our relationships.  Complaints that “southby has gotten so big”; the number of international attendees; and the large corporate displays are just other bits of evidence.

Given this, what I found most interesting at the conference was the people who were trying to present new theoretical frameworks for approaching our key problems in the new age.  For me, this divided into five important themes.  There were likely more as the conference, inherently, has become as broad as society itself.

Big Data, Big Choices

At a high level, our lives are becoming digitized and this produces incredible amounts of data (forget terabytes; think petabytes and beyond).  The questions become: how do we create, store, protect, synthesize and ultimately interact with this data?  From RFID to social media user data to call detail records to the genome, digitizing our world means that we need new frameworks for data ownership, storage and privacy.  New tools will allow line managers to take advantage of larger data sets, while the Presidential race, often a trend-pushing phenomenon, will make use of it this season to elect a president.  Generating these big data sets has profound implications for privacy, and we’re far from consensus on what that means.  By most accounts, “sparks flew” at the CNET panel debating the privacy ramifications of data; Google dropped out of this panel.

New Codes of Ethics

Like our forbears trying to understand the human ramifications of factory work, big thinkers have begun articulating how the incursion of the internet into our lives requires new ways of defining what is ethical.  Though this wasn’t an explicit track, I was surprised how often it came up.

  • The “real-name” social graph is beginning to create moral quandaries.  Who is entitled to your image online, and how are they entitled to use it?  The Ethics of Mobile Face Tagging introduced new software to allow users to conceal faces and objects in mobile photos.
  • Maria Popova of the popular curation site introduced her “Curator’s Code,” which describes a set of behaviors for people who curate content as a primary means of expression, to protect them and their content creators.
  • Digital Anthropologist Danah Boyd spoke passionately about the rise of the culture of fear, explaining that early community utopian ideals have evaporated now that social media has gone mainstream.  Boyd, who studies teenagers in digital communities at Microsoft, suggested that technology and social media exacerbate the use of fear as a control vehicle between institutions and individuals.
  • Brian Solis interviewed Billy Corrigan, who had choice words about the recording industry, but who made a plea that the code of fanship should also include an obligation to use fans’ social networks to promote bands.

The Improvisational Brand

The touchstone session on this theme was the elegant panel discussion “Brands as Patterns” in which leaders from HP, Method and Microsoft describe brands as interactions, not built on an individual set of marks.  The session was capped off by Walter Werzowa, a professional musician, explaining how Beethoven’s Fifth works because the theme varies.  The notion here is that consistency does not build equity, but coherence of experience builds equity.  Each brand has a story to create, and consumers build the story in interaction.  The “brand book” may soon be extinct.

The Emotional Consumer

The broadest theme here was that our current approach to user experience, marketing and value exchange should see people as emotional beings, and that unpacking and analyzing emotions could be incredibly productive for companies.  Chip Corley suggested that products concentrate on maximizing customer and employee self-actualization, while Colin Shaw showed how companies can build value in mapping user experiences to reduce frustration and increase happiness, not just increase efficiency.  Many sessions unpacked reactions through the lens of neuroscience; AK Pradeep suggested that brands should work to understand consumers’ subconscious reactions and age-centric brain profiles.

Ambient Technology

Amber Case’s keynote re-imagined the interface for mobile devices away from a computer/apps framework and toward a set of functionality that could add value to your experience in a contextual, useful way.  Imagine a device that could buzz when you turned a cardinal direction, or add context to a analog poster display in a way that improves on the QR code experience.  The best corporate example of this was Nike+’s FuelBand, launched with big displays and a release of its API at a hackathon.  The device captures your every action and records it to help you “become more active.”  Big data, indeed.

To me, South by Southwest Interactive 2012 felt more like a call to action to think about the kind of networks we’re going to create, what we want the interactions to be.  We can decide how we create codes of ethics, norms of behavior and ways of treating the emotional creatures that are people.  Make no mistake: social business leaders have a huge role to play in deciding what kind of world we want to live in.  The way organizations adopt social and mobile technology will determine the effectiveness and happiness of employees and customers (and by that I mean people) for many years.  As Kranzberg‘s first law states: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”