News & Views

SXSW: Saturday's Sessions

by Contagious Team

Agency Breakfast NY's Points signpost shows the way

Freshly arrived in Austin, Contagious spied a host of brands around the convention centre of Texas' annual film, music and technology festival, SXSW, vying for attention among the technophiles, marketers and the odd Swedish whistleblower. 


IBM put Watson to the test to turn out unique recipes for an Institute of Culinary Education cooking staff in its Cognitive Cooking food truck. We had a ceviche and chips dish, snapper with a fried plantain and fennel shavings, and it was tasty enough for us to forget it was conceived by a machine bent on total domination of humans.

Subway, meanwhile challenged attendees to pit their brain waves against each other in a neuro-controlled sandwich innovation experience

Oreo, not to be left out, put the robots to work assembling and dispensing actual edibles, using its Trending Vending machines customized by Maya Design to identify things trending on Twitter then 3D printing them in cookie ingredients right before onlookers' very eyes. Alongside, a vending concept developed by Carat to be rolled out in some 100 locations in China, enables users to connect to the vending machine via WeChat and use in-app credits to pay for a pack of cookies, or send a pack to a friend.

Speaking on Saturday, Carl Bass, CEO of software manufacturer Autodesk, brought some of the wider implications of Watson and pals to life in The Robot Revolution. Featuring a guest appearance from R2D2, Bass defined robots as machines that can sense their environment, move and react. Bass showcased a robot-generated design, a strong mesh structure perfected thanks to algorithms, based on a designer-specified outcome. Bass both celebrated the work that could be automated - which he sees as generally dull, dirty and dangerous jobs - and warned of the day when an automated vehicle will run someone over, and the negative repercussions.

One of the key themes of the festival, privacy, was raised by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, speaking to the convention centre via Skype from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. Interviewed by The Barbarian Group’s Benjamin Palmer, Assange spoke of a world where the amount of shared data doubles every 18 months, and the ability of organisations such as the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK to monitor everyone in the world is fast approaching. As we share more of our lives, relationships and social interactions online, Assange warned of a ‘huge transfer of power between the people surveilled upon and those performing the surveillance’.

Despite his imposed house arrest, Assange spoke of his commitment to the continuing work of Wikileaks: ‘One of the best ways to achieve justice is to expose injustice.’ Based on the maxim that knowledge is power, Assange warned of ‘a greater power inequality’ as organisations gain more information about us. However, he sees hope in the lateral transfer of information; Assange believes we are educating each other at an astonishing rate, comparing 20 year olds now with those a decade ago. And, as less than 1% of Edward Snowden’s material has been published to date, Wikileaks' work continues, thanks to its staff scattered around the globe.

In a more usual take on the publishing and broadcasting model, ESPN hosted two of its bloggers who run internet ventures with the channel: statistician Nate Silver and sports columnist and Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons. Silver praised the concept of ‘slow journalism’ saying ‘because it’s so easy to publish on the web, people think that it’s a speed thing. I believe in differentiating on the basis of quality.’ Silver added that ‘In the age of instant reaction you don’t get the opportunity for ideas to marinate.’

Simmons praised ESPN for its experimental approach to content, announcing that his Grantland podcasts will be coming to video, predicting that this kind of content could soon make its way to ESPN’s main channels.

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson delivered Saturday’s keynote, espousing the benefits of raising children to be curious and experimental, citing ‘our capacity for wonder’ as the distinguishing factor between humans and other life on earth. He believes we need to ‘empower people to think about science as something they can take ownership of and then encourage them to get better at being citizens of the world.’ DeGrasse spoke passionately about the importance of space programmes that are led by government, rather than brands, describing them as ‘a long term investment into the health and wealth of the nation that public enterprise cannot lead’. He added that private investors getting into space exploration risk entering a realm that is expensive, dangerous and contains risks that can’t be quantified.

Saturday concluded with Contagious co-founder and editorial director Paul Kemp-Robertson and James Kirkham from Holler presented Full of Tomorrow: Brands, Technology and Miracles. A large group of marketing-minded SXSW fans made the trip through a thunderstorm to the off-piste venue. If you missed it, or want to follow up, the Scriberia-animated individual Wildfire scenarios are in full on YouTube, and we’ve collected some of the individual examples we showed on Tumblr.