Innovation for whom?

17/3/2023

Amy Webb with arms wide open in fronto of a SXSW 2023 sign.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is back with a regular edition in 2023, all in-person in Austin, Texas, after a cancellation, an online and a hybrid edition due to the covid-19 pandemic.

With a record number of Brazilians, the event has the inglorious mission of talking about innovation and anticipating trends in a world that changes rapidly, all the time. Is it still possible?

From here in Brazil, I tried to follow the news from there to understand what took so many fellow Brazilians to the land of Uncle Sam. I had a strange “déjà vu” with Gowalla being reintroduced in the same place, 14 years later; I read the repercussion of the anticipated, albeit protocol talks by C-levels from companies such as Patagonia and OpenAI; and I felt the repercussion of the always acclaimed predictions of futurist Amy Webb.

This time around, Amy called attention to generative artificial intelligences, such as ChatGPT, a trend that already reached the public.

In 2022, web3, cryptocurrencies, and metaverse set the tone for the hybrid edition of SXSW. Mark Zuckerberg made an appearance to announce NFTs on Instagram and Vice called the event an effort to create a “pathetic tech future” propelled by marketing.

The effort, as anyone can note, was thwarted. This week Meta buried NFTs, and terms like web3, metaverse and other underlying nonsense were run over by OpenAI’s chatbot, a technology that distinguishes itself from previous trends by trivial details such as being somewhat useful.

What trends are being talked about at SXSW? And for whom?

Outside, not far from that bubble of optimism filled with “futurists”, market speakers and brand “activations”, the world that provides the kind of innovation that has a guaranteed stage at SXSW kind of imploded, with the bankruptcy of the Silicon Valley Bank and the announcement of another mass layoff at Meta.

The fact that the most intense coverage of SXSW, at least here in Brazil, has appeared in outlets specialized in advertising are symptoms of a problem that has not been lingering for a long time, and became clear in this year’s return to normality: much more than “technology, music, and movies”, SXSW is an event for advertising, or for advertisers.

SXSW seems to have become an excuse for advertising executives to go to the US, blow off some steam and come back with extravagant ideas in their luggage. Ideas that, in many cases, don’t even make sense in Global South. (This may be news to some, but Brazil is located in the Global South.)

An executive from Itaú bank, the first Brazilian master sponsor of SXSW, justified the investment with the cliché that one must be tuned into the future. “Everything is so fast-paced, and technology has advanced so much, that it is no longer enough to look at the now.” Where were these people last week?

The discomfort and incomprehension are not only mine. People there felt it too. From here, Aori Sauthon perhaps summed up the feeling better than anyone else: “Folks look for trends in Texas, but they’ve never been to Madureira [a Rio de Janeiro neighborhood].”

Discuss @ Hacker News.

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