SXSW Interactive 2014: A Recap March 11, 2014

Written by: Larry Weintraub
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sxswI am sitting in the Austin airport, slightly hungover, and I figured it’s as good a time as any to jog my brain and try to remember everything I just experienced at the 2014 Interactive portion of the South by Southwest conference (SXSW).  This is my 6th year attending SXSW Interactive and about my 16th year attending SXSW if you include my days as a music nerd.  And I have to say, this year was as good, if not better, than any to date.

Yes it was crowded and yes it rained for a solid day.  But amidst all that I managed to see what I wanted to see and stay invigorated the whole time.  My personal focus this year was to learn about wearable technology and self-improvement, and gain insight from successful entrepreneurs and groundbreaking innovators.  I attended about 10 sessions which only scratched the surface of what SXSW had to offer.  I took copious notes and as you read this, know that I could have easily shared two or three times as much as what you see here. I’m hoping that by browsing my musings, you’ll be able to sense a little bit of the kinetic energy that I felt this past weekend.

Day 1 – Friday, March 7

I caught a handful of sessions including a conversation with Google’s Eric Schmidt, a few moments with Harvard professor Amy Cuddy, and an inspiring discussion between IDEO CEO Tim Brown and MIT Media Lab Director, Joi Ito.

sxsw-schmidtEric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, co-authors of “The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business”  set the tone for what would be recurring topics throughout the conference such as privacy, the future of the Internet, Bitcoin, WhatsApp, and the impact of technology in a globally connected world. The first part of the discussion concentrated on the political unrest around the globe and how the Internet plays a key role in fueling change and turmoil. The privacy discussion was fascinating and the duo claimed that soon we will need to teach our kids about data permanence before we teach them about the birds and the bees.  Schmidt discussed robots and how physical jobs are being replaced by automation, and that we need not be afraid, but rather embrace this and understand that the next workforce generation needs to consider careers in this area. Cohen added a poignant statement that knowing another language is incredibly important,  “During the cold war many people began to learn Russian. After 9/11 we learned Arabic. The next language is Computer.”

Harvard professor Amy Cuddy led a session about how posture and nonverbal behavior can shape confidence and attitude.  She explained that her research has proven that doing power poses for 2 minutes a day, as well as before you walk into a meeting, can greatly empower you and release chemicals in your body that improve performance. If you haven’t seen Cuddy’s popular Ted talk, I’ve posted it below.

IDEO’s Tim Brown and MIT’s Joi Ito discussed The Future of Making and the connection between design and biology. In this absolutely fascinating session, the two showcased how design goes beyond graphics and user-interfaces, and takes the wearable technology concept further than watches and wristbands.  Ito stressed that biology will have a huge impact on computing and that the amount of data that can be stored on a chromosome far exceeds that which can be stored on a chip or hard drive.  Examples showcased through short video clips included fabric that touches your skin that can translate emotions and how human initiated design can be completed by nature. Supporting that last point, they showed a video involving silkworms that explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication in design, which I was able to find online and post below.

Day 2 – Saturday, March 8

This was a day where I poured myself into sessions while it poured rain outside. I was truly privileged to experience these discussions and my highlights below barely begin to express the knowledge that I gained on this day.Jullian

I started my day by attending a virtual interview with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange broadcast via Skype from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London (pictured above).  There were, of course, technical difficulties, but Assange didn’t seem to need much prompting. Each question was met with long in-depth diatribes about conspiracy and irrational governments.  When asked what his life is like, he explained that he’s been a prisoner for 650 days but that he continues to proceed with his mission of exposing injustices and government secrets. He let us know about his team’s involvement in assisting Edward Snowden (who was also doing a SXSW virtual interview on Monday) and that while many of his WikiLeaks reporters are in exile in countries such as Germany, they continue to work for the cause.  He alluded that they were preparing to expose something major very soon.

Simmons.BetterOn a much lighter note, I attended a fireside chat between ESPN’s Bill Simmons and Nate Silver that felt like I was witnessing two friends having a conversation over dinner.  Both guys are funny and incredibly engaging and I found myself wishing the discussion would go on for so much longer than the hour they were allocated.  If you are not familiar with them, Simmons leads one of ESPN’s top content outlets, Grantland and recently scored a major coup by bringing to ESPN one of the nation’s leading data scientists, Nate Silver – predictor of 49 of 50 Senate races and much much more and formerly of the New York Times.  Silver’s blog, will now fly under the ESPN banner.  Simmons and Silver explained that while they are sports fanatics and create sports-related content, they are not exclusive to sports. Simmons’s Grantland is about 50/50 sports and entertainment and Silver claimed his blog will be only 20% sports with Politics, Economics, Science, and Lifestyle being core components and launches on March 17.  I took pages and pages of notes, but the key point that stood out was how ESPN is investing in guys like Simmons and Silver and quietly pulling in some of the most respected editorial forces from top traditional news outlets – NOT NECESSARILY IN SPORTS.  All I could think of the whole time was how brilliant this organization is and that once the cable/satellite breakup comes and we start buying unbundled content on a per channel basis, ESPN will be one of, if not THE biggest winner.

caseAOL founder, Steve Case, was interviewed by Bloomerberg’s Emily Chang. I saw Steve last year and was looking forward to seeing him this year, and he didn’t disappoint. He covered topics ranging from the regionalization of entrepreneurship to immigration reform. On the topic of whether startups all needed to be in Silicon Valley, he professed his love for the bay area but said that huge innovations were coming out of other cities. He said that places like Silicon Valley have huge populations of talent, but competition for that talent is fierce. He said if other cities embrace startups, then talent will follow. Asked about the state of technological innovation, he theorized that the Internet is in its third wave. The first was when AOL started and only 3% of the US was online and only for 1 hour a week. The second wave was the explosion of social media and the corresponding apps and services that were built on top of the Internet.  And where previously companies like AOL, Facebook, and Google needed to be huge companies to foster innovation and growth, this third wave is made up of companies like WhatsApp and Instagram which have/had small teams (50 people and 12 people respectively) and are being bought for billions of dollars.  He went on to talk about his work in DC and helping to pass laws related to small businesses, investment (i.e. legalization of crowdfunding), and now immigration reform that enables businesses to recruit talent from around the world to help the US maintain it’s competitive edge.

gtdI ended the day by attending an interview with David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done” which helps leaders organize their work and personal lives to improve their productivity and their happiness.  I’m a guy who is constantly trying to improve my own efficiency and I found Allen’s confidence and matter-of-fact attitude riveting.  After watching him explain his GTD methodology, I was just dying to re-open my copy of his book which has been sitting on a shelf for years. When an audience member asked him what to do when a meeting is going long and meandering away from any sense of accomplishment he said, “just stand up and tell the room that nothing is being accomplished and leave.” To which the person said, “really?” Yes, really!

Day 3 – Sunday, March 9

By the third day the exhaustion had set in, but I powered through and spent much of the day exploring brand activations all over downtown Austin. oreoOreo was using 3D printers to custom print the filling in their cookies, Cottonelle offered massages and hair styling, AT&T had a massive structure dedicated to art and music, and Samsung basically owned Austin. The Samsung house was filled with the opportunitySamsunghouse to touch and interact with watches and phones and eat, drink, and be seen. I also wandered Rainey street which felt like a row of fraternity houses owned by the likes of Funny or Die, Dropbox, Time Warner, DirectTV, and contingents from Brazil, Germany, and the Netherlands.

I watched one session which was a discussion between Venture Capital superstar Ben Horowitz and the rapper, Nas.  Horowitz is half of the power duo Andreessen Horowitz, investors in nearly every successful new company including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Airbnb, Fab, and more. Ben is a fascinating guy and he was incredibly honest. I personally wish he had been interviewed by someone from the news media rather than Nas, but I appreciate that they were trying to do something a little different. When asked about his partnership with Marc Andreesen, he said, “we hate each other.” He explained that they really don’t like each other and that they don’t like spending time together, yet somehow it works and has made them extremely successful. Ben gave incredible advice and provided a whole host of sound-bites including:ben

  • You need someone in your life that you can count on. The person who will tell you when you are wrong and help you get to the root of your problem and solve it. (He was referencing A-H partner, John O’Farrell)
  • Don’t worry about your mistakes, think instead about your next move.
  • Nobody is a good CEO. It’s not like there is a place where you can learn to be a great CEO. My job is to help CEOs and none of them are that good (he referenced how he’s worked with Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page). It’s something you have to learn on the job.
  • The hardest people to hire or manage are the ones that are really rich. When things get hard, these employees just say, ‘Why am I doing this? I’m rich.  And one day, they just call in rich.’
  • Bitcoin is the Internet of money. There is no regulation, just like when the Internet started. And because of that, we feel a responsibility of being a part of something that groundbreaking.
  • Don’t give up. Stick with it. If you do, you will continue to learn and you’ll have the advantage when everyone else comes around.

The festival is still going on.  There are more sessions and parties, but Monday morning is always my planned time to get back to reality. Those of you who get to see Edward Snowden, Jimmy Kimmel, and the iTunes Festival, I hope you have as amazing an experience as I did. And for some of those who were with me and possibly smitten with a certain grumpy feline, these are for you…