SXSW 2018: Finding digital inspirations in unexpected places

As Stephen Hawkings famously said: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

The rate of change is speeding up exponentially, and our ability to keep up with this change will determine whether we grow or become obsolete. Attending events that show you what’s on the bleeding edge, like South by Southwest (SXSW), are important steps in maintaining this growth.

What is it?

South by Southwest (SXSW) is one of the purest expressions of culture, innovation, and creativity. Held every year in Austin, Texas, the festival is composed of five streams: Interactive (tech. & startups), Film, Music, Gaming, and Comedy. For about two weeks, crowds of people and companies show off their startups, play video games, host panel discussions, premiere their films, or play their music. Every year, SXSW breaks its own attendance records, this year hosting close to 450,000 attendees and 2,000 musical performers.

I was a latecomer to the 2018 festivities, which took place this past March, but SXSW goes down as one of the best festivals I have ever attended. I had the chance to meet people from different backgrounds that I would never meet anywhere else, and gain unexpected insights into topics that cross the intersection of technology and humanity.

Finding the human side of digital technologies

One of the most thought-provoking talks I attended was given by Patricia Summersett, better known as the voice of Princess Zelda. She described the process she went through to win this role: the developers got to know as much about Summersett as possible, and determined that her personality and interests were best suited to the character they had in mind. When they created Zelda, they incorporated many of Summersett’s personal quirks and characteristics into the video game character.

I’m not a gamer, but I was amazed by the length the developers went to to make Zelda as human as possible. And it seems the gaming audience appreciated these efforts, naming The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild the 2017 Game of the Year.

Gone are the one-dimensional and robotic digital characters of the past. Now you can truly get to know the characters you’re interacting with in a game, as if they were a real person. The line between the digital world and the real world is blurring. What I find most exciting about this is the idea that, though our technologies (gaming, robotics, AI, etc) are advancing, they aren’t leaving humanity behind. Rather, technologies seem to work best when they incorporate human ideas and characteristics.

I came away from this session with a sense of optimism about the future of digital technologies: rather than humans getting pushed to the side, I see humans and machines working side by side on new projects. One brings creativity, passion and idealism, and the other supplies the number-crunching, project management, and hard graft. With this combination, we can build new technologies that not only amaze us with the breadth of their capabilities, but also stay personal and connected to the human experience.

What an amazing insight to gain from a video gaming talk!

Building your own SXSW experience

Whatever you’re into, video gaming or no, SXSW has something for you. Each day is jam-packed with so much programming, you won’t know where to start, and you may likely experience some form of SXSW F.O.M.O. But stay open to attending random, even impromptu sessions: they can unwittingly serenade your mind.

Free, free and more free

Image courtesy of Propomando & SXSW

Registration badges are super expensive – +$1,500 to get in to all the talks, music and films – but, there’s plenty going on in Austin during SXSW for free on the side, so if you don’t want full access (or can’t afford to), there’s more than enough music and events to experience to make your plane ticket worth it.

Almost every brand that you can think of has some form of presence in Austin and they are all vying for your attention. This could include a baby goat petting station put on by Vice Land, a technology-inspired theme park hosted by Mercedes Benz, or Stub Hub’s party house, which hosted a number of musical acts.

Other notable experiences this year included the Spotify House – which has been known to launch the careers of many musicians – as well as the YouTube Music House, House of Twix, and House of Vans. All were free to enter, and best of all, free to drink.

There’s always the 40 hours of volunteering you can do in return for a badge – I think I may look into getting on that scheme next year.

Why go?

It’s particularly important for Canadians to attend events like these. As a nation of up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs, we need to stay inspired, build new relationships, and get the word out to a wider audience of what we’re doing. Did you know that companies like Twitter and Foursquare were launched at SXSW?

And as the arts and technology fields continue to merge, events that give context to developments in music, film, startups, and technology will only become more important.

Sahr Saffa
Sahr Saffa
Sahr is the founder of Saffa & Company in Edmonton. As a doer, he has a curiosity for finding impactful intersections between commerce, technology, and culture. As a creative problem-solver, he is most proud of the work done to start the C-Tribe Festival — a community driven by diversity and growing the innovation ecosystem in Edmonton.