South by Southwest, or ‘South By’, or just SXSW, is now one of the world’s biggest festivals.
SXSW is dedicated to helping creative people achieve their goals. Founded in 1987 in Austin, Texas, SXSW is best known for its Conference and Festival that bring together the interactive, film and music industries from around the world.
Last year, approximately 432,500 people participated in the SXSW Conference and Festival. Almost 40 percent of these were aged between 25 and 35 years old. Although 75 percent of all those attending were from the United States, from both Europe and the Pacific Rim there were sizable and noticeable groups of attendees. Each year at SXSW there are many entrepreneurial startups and those looking for funding. But there are also many multinational corporations present too. SXSW itself is big business. In 2017 alone, SXSW’s economic impact on the Austin economy was $348.6 million.
During SXSW the Austin Conference Center hosting SXSW has become the go-to destination for media and tech professionals. For the 10 days SXSW runs, there are an endless array of events, sessions, showcases, screenings, exhibitions, and a variety of networking opportunities second to none. In terms of media and tech it would be fair to say that there is unlikely to be a conference with a more varied, creative and innovative group of attendees anywhere in the world.
The organisers of SXSW are conscious of the fact that some of the most creative and inquiring minds on the planet are collected together and, quite literally, bumping into each other in restaurants, bars, or just sitting beside each other listening to an author, actor or entrepreneur mapping out the future of their industry and, in some cases, the world around us. The buzzword here is “serendipity.” Chance meetings that can radically shift one’s mind or even one’s career. SXSW does a good job on promoting itself, but for once the hype seems to be justified.
Increasingly SXSW prides itself on being diverse. That is true with regard to the types of media and tech with which it engages. This is as varied as it possible — from AI to blockchain, “fake news” to living on Mars, from immersive entertainment to 3D printing, and much else besides. Walking around the conference center’s main hall, looking at the various exhibits, and sitting in the various auditoria listening to what is being said, the whole event appears at times part Ph.D. seminar, part sci-fi movie.
There is a side to SXSW that seems not to be so diverse, however. Talking to one veteran participant, when asked how SXSW had changed over the years, he noted how it had become “more political.” He then listed a variety of politicians’ names, but all springing from the liberal side of politics. Of the presentations onstage, and the conversations heard around SXSW, it is easy to assume a shared worldview: secular, metropolitan, liberal, feminist, etc. The philosophy and values of those organizing this event — and especially its programming — are closer to those who tend to live in San Francisco and New York City than, say, the communities in Texas beyond Austin.
Interestingly, this year one veteran SXSW participant and speaker told me that there was a need to bring “more of the human” into the debates around the future in which the technology being presented might operate. In light of this, perhaps not surprisingly, what many attending have said to me is that their high point while being at SXSW has been simply meeting people. Sitting talking to another human being might appear positively 19th century at SXSW, yet it seems to be what brings the greatest joy to many. My own experience bears this out. While the talks have been mind-expanding, and some of the technology on display mind-boggling, there is nothing to rival a conversation with someone you have never met before but whose entrepreneurial journey strikes a chord and resonates with your own calling.
This, perhaps, should give pause for thought. Where, one should ask, is all this new technology heading? Yes, some of it is directed into outer space but what about that inner space — the spiritual realm? “Spiritual” is a word that may be used occasionally in Austin this week but rarely in a Christian, let alone Catholic sense.
If SXSW is all about shaping the future, then there needs to be a note of caution sounded, the high-tech possibilities on offer can be used for good or ill; they can create a better world or a “brave new world.” Ultimately, it is humanity which will choose whether the technologies of the future make us more human or, instead, devalue or even rob us of our humanity.
Walking around the conference center I was reminded of the Garden of Eden.
Looking at the hoped for a future reality in many of the exhibits, I was conscious of the Tree of Knowledge also on display. Like Adam and Eve, however, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of wanting to become like gods when we are but men. And, like Adam and Eve, we too need to recognize that our true home is not here in this world but rather with God in the next. Anything, be it human or artificial, that blocks that return to our true “Eden” is not worth having no matter how much it appears to shine. Instead, we Catholics need to remind those around us and to be reminded that our creativity is never dimmed by the light of Christ, but always enhanced in him who makes all things new.