Art, science, wearable tech and viral video: Art Center at SXSW Interactive

by March 12th, 2014

There are as many ways to describe a day immersed in South by Southwest Interactive programming as there were LED screens lighting up every available space around the Convention Center in downtown Austin. But, like many of the tech pilgrims who made their way to this digital mecca, our epic first day at the conference was spent soaking in a free-flowing cascade of ideas about how innovation and technology can be leveraged to improve the way we interact with our work, home, communities, passions and the larger world around us. And at the end of an enlightening eight hours’ worth of events, we came away feeling more energized than exhausted—as if we had just taken a multi-vitamin full of more than the daily recommended amount of inspiration.

This is noteworthy because the same cannot be said of the movie or music components of SXSW, or any other festival for that matter. Skeptical? Good. Read on.

As someone who has attended nearly every major film festival you can name off the top of your head – the one in Utah, the one in the south of France and several north of the border – the experience of binge-watching movies all day long, no matter how carefully curated, can leave the body restless, the mind muddled and the emotions tangled. That’s because the majority of those films inevitably fall flat aesthetically, technically or otherwise. That’s at least partially because art is subjective.  But, perhaps more relevant to the festival experience, it’s much harder to make a successful film than it is to deliver a talk or participate in a panel. The point being that festivals like SXSW Interactive and TED arguably offer a more consistently engaging, edifying and inspiring overall experience than some of their sexier cousins showcasing indie films and indie bands.

This realization did not hit us immediately. In fact, we began our day with what may have been our only misfire: a panel on DIY culture. The panelists focused almost exclusively on the music scene in Washington, D.C., where they helped launch homestage.com, a digital platform uniting musicians, fans and alternative performance spaces. It’s a noble enterprise but not directly relevant to the Art Center community.

We then moved on to a lively Reddit demonstration, featuring two of the wildly popular and influential platform’s expert users—social media manager, Garrett Tillman, and digital strategist, Rohit Thawani. These two Reddit rock stars framed the discussion around the arrogant-but-true notion that we’re squandering a golden opportunity to tap into a robust and rapidly growing community of savvy young influencers.

Among the most valuable advice they offered was to spend time building karma on Reddit before using it to promote your own content. Just like in the real world, karma on Reddit comes from being generous, in this case by supporting and engaging with other people’s content. Once you’ve stockpiled karma, you’ll also have a better sense of where to find the core audience—aka a subreddit—you’re looking to engage.  Then all you have to do is give the people what they want.  “That audience is out there,” said Tillman. “Start asking questions and find out what they want.”

After picking up some sustenance, we headed across the river to a panel entitled, “Wearables: The New Marketers’ Challenge.” The discussion centered mostly on the question of whether wearable technology will fulfill its promise as the Next Big Thing. The short answer: Probably, if manufacturers are smart about listening to consumers’ needs and if marketers maintain the intimacy and finesse necessary for earning the trust of tech-savvy consumers.

The panelists—David Rosales, CTO of META Watch, Kieran Barr, VP of Buisness Development, Distimo and Soulaiman Itani, CEO, Atheer—emphasized that wearables will only be as valuable as they are useful. And, thus far, the most effective approach to developing a successful wearable is to regard it as an “ecosystem of nudges.” In other words, in an ideal world, wearables will encourage you to make healthy choices about eating, exercise and lifestyle. If this field takes hold in the way many have predicted, it has the potential to alter and improve the healthcare crisis facing America and beyond. A lot of our most deadly health threats are preventable with precisely the types of behavior change wearables target. “Our bodies aren’t built to tell us what’s bad for us while we’re engaging in that activity,” said one panelist. “Wearables will save us from ourselves.”

So what was their take on Google Glass? It won’t take off until it becomes consonant with gaming. “In order for it to go mainstream, you’ll need to make a good entertainment case for buying it,” said another panelist.

The most high-profile event of the day came in the afternoon, when MythBuster Adam Savage took the stage in the enormous Exhibit Hall 5 at the Austin Convention Center. His talk, entitled “The Maker Age: Enlightened Views on Science and Art”, could not have been more closely aligned to Art Center’s interests and creative sensibility. The former special effects supervisor made a convincing case for the symbiotic relationship between art and science in that they both deploy creativity and inquiry to better understand the world in which we live. He also pointed out that during time periods when science has flourished, art has responded in kind (i.e., just as Einstein was discovering the theory of relativity Picasso painted the first cubist painting). “Art and science have always been twin engines,” Savage explained, “pushing us forward as a species.”

“We see science and art as separate from us, that’s why it’s STEAM, not STEM,” he declared, referring to the movement to include art in the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. “Culture is conversation. Art and science are how we have that conversation. They make us all better.”

We closed out our day with what would turn out to be one of the most dynamic and substantive discussions of the entire conference. New York Times media columnist, David Carr presided over a spirited debate with Upworthy.com co-founder Eli Pariser about the role of serious news and socially redeeming content on the web.

Carr grilled Pariser about Upworthy’s practices of slapping a provocative headline on emotionally or politically inciting videos to ratchet up their virality. Pariser countered that the ends justify the means; and that Upworthy has exposed millions of users around the world to the complex social justice issues, from poverty to discrimination to police brutality.

In the end, there was no right answer. But the insights that emerged from the discussion between these two highly influential media figures are central to the core conversation around how we consume information vital to the evolution of our democracy. “Maybe you’re over-exercising your muscle by turning substantial stories into clickbait,” wondered Carr aloud. “Maybe serious news has become a niche.”

Now there’s a subject for a panel we hope to see next year.

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