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SXSW Trends: Outrage, Disruption and ‘Human Mode’


by Alan Melson 14 Mar 2018

Though SXSW is always a place for people to gather and ooh and ahh over new technologies, there seemed to be an uptick in sessions this year asking if we need to be less celebratory and more aware.

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As always, the interactive portion of this year’s South By Southwest conference in Austin drew thousands to ooh and ahh over new technologies – and there were plenty of smart panels talking about why the future is bright.

However, amidst all the hyped-up talk of the future – such as Elon Musk’s surprise drop-in or the rise of blockchain – there seemed to be a rising note of caution.

Perhaps it is the lingering specter of electoral manipulation by Russian hackers, or the ongoing spread of artificial intelligence and its implications, but there seemed to be more sessions this year asking if we need to be less celebratory and more aware.

I wrote earlier about the coarsening of digital user experiences (and designers’ efforts to improve them), as well as concerns over what happens to our digital footprint after we die.  Additionally, well-known futurist Rohit Barghava gave an engaging talk about this year’s emerging trends – a list that reflects changes emerging from the cautious attitude mentioned above.

Barghava, who puts out an emerging trends guide each year, said that his main focus when trying to identify trends is to read and learn as much as possible on a daily basis, identify emerging patterns, and curate the ideas that emerge from those patterns.

“I don’t think trendspotting exists; I think ideaspotting exists,” he said.  “Trend curation helps lead to being able to predict what will happen in the future.”

Among those trends that continue to grow this year:

  • Manipulated Outrage: Barghava said media, algorithms and advertising combine to create a perpetual stream of noise often intended to incite rage and elicit reactionary anger – and often social media is a chief instigator. While this is well-covered territory, he believes that the problem will get worse before it gets better as social platforms continue to struggle finding ways to combat the issue and media organizations rely on shallow tropes to fill the 24/7 news cycle.
  • Human Mode: As automation increases, hunger is growing for more personal and authentic experiences. Whether it’s the Human Library project where you can “check out” a person from a different background so that you can learn from them and grow empathy over coffee, a “slow checkout” line at a grocery store, or even baby goats amid all the tech at SXSW, people increasingly place a premium on real interactions.  This trend can be observed on digital platforms as well – just check out the millions of views that cooking or how-to videos get on YouTube.
  • Disruptive Distribution: We’ve already seen the impact Amazon has had on many industries.  That disruption is now spreading to industries that didn’t previously seem like targets.   Barghava talked about the rise of Casper, an online mattress provider, and Flexe, a website that provides warehouse space on demand – he referred to it as “AirBNB for warehouses”.  And he feels this trend will continue into other spaces we haven’t even considered yet.
  • Enlightened Consumption: Even amid that disruption, consumers are looking for ways to make choices they think will benefit society – and then influence others do to the same.  Events like North Texas Giving Day are a step in this direction – and now brands are taking this a step further.  French supermarket chain Intermarche started an “Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables” campaign to get people to eat imperfect produce that would have previously been thrown away (and Wal-Mart followed suit).  And companies like Chobani and Costco have been applauded repeatedly for their pro-employee policies and social awareness.

Barghava closed by urging the audience to become ideaspotters themselves – and commit to thinking about business and technology in non-obvious ways.  He left the crowd with an assignment, too.

“Do this when you go home: Buy a magazine that’s not targeted at you, and read it,” he said. “It will give you a glimpse into an entire world of media you wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Photo via @markcschneider on Twitter.

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