If there’s one thing I took away from South by Southwest this year, it’s that more open-minded conversation needs to happen in this world.
This might seem like an odd lesson from a festival dedicated to technology, music, film and everything new and cool. But I think it shows discourse around technology is evolving from how it can innovate industry to its impact on people and the world.
I bring this up in light of the repeal of North Carolina’s controversial HB2 bill last week, a move that legislators promise will restore the state’s appeal and reputation for businesses, sports and entertainers and shows that our very partisan state legislature is able to compromise.
But my time at South by Southwest proved to me that it’s not always about the business case, as much as we care about seeing our economy grow. What HB2 and pending laws in other states show is that there’s a deep divide between people that can really only be bridged with more public conversation and openness to each other’s points of view.
This is the message that I believe the South by Southwest planners hoped to get across through a series of keynote addresses to the thousands of conference attendees, many of whom work in the tech industry. Moogfest, coming May 18-21 to downtown Durham, is planning a similar focus on open discourse and creativity as it relates to gender, discrimination and policy, and the team was present at SXSW teasing the festival with an event of the telling title Synthesize Love.
I served as moderator for the Moogfest at SXSW discussion (pictured top) between Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University’s vice president of public affairs and government relations, Jimmy Flannigan, the city of Austin’s first openly gay council member, and experimental artist and producer Russell E.L. Butler, who identifies as non-binary (neither male or female).
It was enlightening to hear perspectives on behalf of a university that doesn’t typically take a stance on public policy, from a politician for which the issue is deeply personal, and a musician who promotes a message of unity, equality and acceptance in his work.
Watch/listen to the discussion here:
Several other talks and discussions have stuck with me in the weeks since I returned home.
The most obvious and relevant came from the managing director of Texas Competes, an organization that has rallied more than 1,200 businesses, from startups to Fortune 500s, to commit to making Texas a welcoming state to the LGBTQ community. Jessica Shortall shared the journey she and her team have been on over the last three years to use data to convince as many businesses as possible in the traditionally conservative state that policy limiting the rights of the LGBT community is bad for business.
But she ended her talk with an important message, that it’s not really about economics after all. Data also shows that significantly more transgender people commit suicide than the general population. And until you know a person who’s felt discrimination or hate because of gender or sexual orientation, it’s hard to relate. Her talk, embedded below, is worth watching regardless of where you stand on the issue.
Discourse is also important as we consider the implications of editing and repairing DNA, especially as the practice gets safer, easier and cheaper. Dr. Jennifer Doudna, an inventor of the CRISPR technology which holds all of these promises in the field, pointed out that none of it matters without open discussion about how to deploy gene editing in an ethical way.
While answering questions ranging from how researchers can ensure diversity of people, organisms and thought is maintained, to how to ensure gene editing is available to rich and poor, to the impact of “controlling evolution”, Doudna proved her commitment to conversation on the topic. She’s also a founder of the Innovative Genomics Institute, which works to educate the public and ensure CRISPR is used responsibly.
“It’s going to involve an ongoing set of conversations,” she told the crowd. It also means a “change in the way we educate students so they are better equipped to address challenges in the future.”
The full talk, including a great description of how CRISPR works, is below:
The message of openness carried through to a conversation between ad exec Jeff Goodby and Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, which shut down after it lost a contentious court battle with Hulk Hogan (his lawsuit funded by Peter Thiel) last year.
Even as Gawker’s demise causes fear over freedom of the press, Denton predicts and hopes the most successful media moving forward will continue to go deep and will create a more engaging, personal and interactive experience for readers/viewers that helps “soften someone’s view.”
It will be interesting to see how Moogfest carries these themes through. Though its day one “Protest” stage could be mistaken as antagonistic, Moogfest has carefully curated a mix of artists and speakers who represent diverse perspectives. Among the music lineup, there’s Talib Kweli, a social activist hip hop artist who owns a record label “for independent thinkers & doers”, Syrian artist-activist Omar Souleyman, whose music “preaches love and building bridges”, and Pie Face Girls, a Raleigh punk band disrupting conventional norms of the music scene.
They join thought leaders from MIT Open Doc Lab, which collects and disseminates audio from protest events in real time, The Argus Project, an interactive installation by NEW Inc. that commentates on the debate over police accountability and a research group at Goldsmiths University of London considering how technology can enable more human expression.
Here’s how the Moogfest team explains the focus:
WE are the agents of change in this world. We are the artists, activists, and innovators who can raise consciousness and organize resistance to redesign our future. The forward movement of science and society doesn’t have to mean dystopia—it could mean more advanced problem-solving technology and increasingly innovative ways to use that technology for justice. So how can we use our resources to synthesize change? How do the musical and scientific instruments we dream of in our beds and tinker with in our homes light the way to future and better worlds?
Though the threat of HB2 causing more economic damage to North Carolina seems to be over for now, there’s a lasting legacy in the fact that the bill happened to begin with. And I don’t think I’m alone in finding it hard to get past the deep divide between people that policy has brought to light over the past year.
It proves that people with disparate experiences and perspectives need to come together openly, and to hash it out, however uncomfortable that might be.
Though much more work needs to be done to ensure all parties are at the table for that, it’s encouraging that the technology community is exploring how to facilitate it.