Austin is a living synergy between the past and future.
Walking down Downtown Austin’s famed 6th street, you’ll see old Western saloons backdropped by cranes building new skyscrapers. It is here where the South by Southwest (SXSW) conferences take place.
This annual conference attracts creative minds from the technology, music, and film industries. Moreover, every year some of the biggest ideas in entertainment and tech debut here. This year, however, macroeconomic factors and a potential bank crisis loomed over the conference.
Members of the Fidelity Center for Applied Technology’s content, design, and research teams showed up to observe, participate, and speak at the famed conference.
Here are some takeaways from the conference:
Tech bros not welcome
A pervading feeling throughout SXSW was that tech needed to move away from the traditional reputation of Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley is known for its bro-ey culture, which is now as memed as it is mythologized. However, at SXSW, there was a concerted effort by venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and tech workers to distance themselves from that reputation.
For example, Instagram founder Kevin Systrom — who spoke with journalist Kara Swisher at one of the keynote sessions — specifically described viewing the term “tech-bro” as a pejorative. His criticism is based on what he believed to be the all-too-common sentiment many young founders have, where they think they can come into any industry and immediately revolutionize it.
Systrom expressed his criticism by quoting a line from the HBO show Silicon Valley:
“Because if we can make files smaller, we can make cancer cells smaller,” Systrom joked with Swisher.
With the banking crisis looming over the conference, entrepreneurs, attendees, journalists, and even financiers were quick to point out how the often intentionally sophomoric culture of Silicon Valley enables a paternalistic confidence that can lead to disastrous effects when left unchecked.
Magic strikes at its own pace
“Kismet” is a Hebrew phrase that means that events occur in accordance with one’s destiny.
Founders at SXSW described that their success — or kismet — came from a key combination of providing value, but also hitting the market at the perfect timing.
Systrom explained this saying that in his opinion every good social media platform originally comes from an interesting tool. For example, Instagram’s team built uniquely great photo filters –– that draw in its initial userbase. However, the 38-year-old founder explains that merely having a good product didn’t lead to Instagram’s success.
He tells Swisher that hitting the market around the time of the launch of the iPhone 4, known for its vastly improved camera when compared to previous iPhone iterations –– in effect made everyone a photographer.
Systrom mentioned that he believes if it wasn’t for this serendipitous timing, Instagram would have never captured the cultural zeitgeist and built such a lasting social media platform.
Become a Category of One
Everyone from reporters to attendees joked about the hype cycle in the technology industry. Specifically poking fun at how far crypto and NFT companies have fallen from their perch from last year’s conference — and how quickly the hype surrounding generative AI has grown. However, many speakers warned attendees of the dangers of following trends.
Podcaster Tim Ferriss explained to Uber investor Bill Gurley that visionary success is tied to creating something that is authentically reflective of oneself. Ferriss explained that great products, be they podcasts or apps, seek to be categories of one — that in every way are their own entity, not a replica.
Systrom echoed this sentiment telling the crowd that no great idea ever came from chasing “what’s next.”
Generative AI hasn’t ended work…yet
Generative AI was certainly the most popular subject at the Austin conference. The talk by the founder of OpenAI, the company that created the famed ChatGPT messenger bot, filled not only their 1000 plus person lecture hall, but even the spill over room.
Tales of ChatGPT passing college courses and engineering tests have struck a chord with the public, causing many of us to wonder if artificial intelligence will replace us. However, most technologists at the conference shared the sentiment that people shouldn’t be afraid of the future of generative AI. Rather, they urged people to think about the ways in which it can bolster your life.
While at SXSW, FCAT interviewed author Henry Coutinho-Mason whose book, The Future Normal: How We Will Live, Work and Thrive in the Next Decade, came out shortly after the public release of ChatGPT. The British author describes using OpenAI’s chatbot as a “creative sparring partner.”
“We’d put a chapter into ChatGPT and then ask for the program to write a scathing Amazon review of the chapter.” Coutinho-Mason told FCAT. He continued to explain that after reading the AI’s concerns, he and his co-author, Rohit Bhargava, would make edits given ChatGPT’s feedback.
FCAT researcher Sarah Hoffman, who spoke at a packed lecture at SXSW, described a similar experience of using ChatGPT to help with correcting code on a recent episode of FCAT Crypto Brief.
She tells a story where she added some bugs to code she wrote, then asked ChatGPT to locate the problems with the code.
A Creative Convergence
What makes SXSW unique is its culture built around the creative synergy of film, music, and technology. These creative industries share a powerful bond in their ability to provide meaning to our lives. Arguably the fond memories we have of music and film are only matched by the connections spurred by new technologies like video chatting and social media. In a way, these industries are most connected in their pursuit to provide meaning to our lives.
However, while these creative industries share an ability to inspire and provide meaning to the people — they share an anxiety — a constant onerous to prove that their existence is justified. Now more than ever, the struggles of the pre-revenue founder is increasingly analogous to that of the starving artist.
Both require a great deal of faith — perhaps irrationally — in one’s kismet.
Both entrepreneurs and artists struggle until they find product-market-fit and build their audience. As interest rates — alongside pessimism for what isn’t presently profitable — continue to rise, the question: why bother pursuing one’s dream arises.
This is exactly why SXSW matters.
SXSW is far more than a venue to showcase new movies, songs, and tech products — it represents a convergence of creative people celebrating what can happen if someone succeeds in following that path less taken.
In his lecture, Tim Ferriss — who is now a widely recognized name in content and investing — told the audience that it was his first lecture in a small room at SXSW that provided him a chance to meet friends and fans who would stay with him throughout his career. He told this story in a room packed with thousands at that very same conference years later. In a way, it was an integral part of his kismet.
Rewinding the year to-date, several things have happened that have legitimately sparked questions about how tech is tangibly improving people’s lives. Maybe it is here, where reflecting on SXSW’s host city of Austin, could be fruitful – a city that has become a tech powerhouse, pushing many major Silicon Valley companies to replant their Californian roots.
More than that, Austin shows that progress comes from a synthesis between what is new, and what is lasting.