SXSW – Privacy problems and the future of making

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SXSW – Privacy problems and the future of making

I’d never imagined that in my first full-time job I’d be flying out to Texas to attend SXSW, but there I was boarding a plane on March 6th priming myself for a week of inspirational talks, and innovative tech.

I’ll do my best to summarise the major themes but for a full overview have a look at

The big theme of SXSW this year was the issue of privacy in today’s ever more connected society.

The talks from Edward Snowden and Julian Assange were two of the biggest draws of the conference, highlighting the growing concerns people have for the safety of their digital world.

Snowden’s talk highlighted the dangers of the NSA’s approach to cyber-security. A ready-made structure of surveillance invites outside threats to infiltrate the system for their own means. He argued that it is very possible for big organisations to encrypt their data and make it simply too expensive for government agencies to collect information on all their citizens, but they chose not to until the mass public outcry forced them to act. Snowden’s speech was a call to arms for those in the tech community to create encryption software that the average person can use to make it next to impossible for systematic data surveillance to take place.

Google’s Eric Schmidt rather surprisingly argued (considering their role in the recent NSA leaks) that systematically ‘evil’ behaviour deserves to be leaked as a way to keep this kind of encroachment on civil liberties in check. More predictably, he argued that there is a role for secrecy but it needs to be very narrowly defined and not used to simply save the government of the day embarrassment.

The second major theme was centred on the future of making and particularly the role robotics will have in our world.

Many of the talks focussed on how tools are becoming more intelligent.As a result there is a lower barrier preventing people from just trying things; one of the major obstacles to creativity is the fear people have to just try something new. Creativity needs divergent thinking and technology opens up the possibilities to create and think more broadly.

The Iteration table from IDEO is a good example of how technology can help people be more creative with their designs. These new technologies allow us to become more conscious of consumer choices and will eventually allow us to recognise things in ourselves we previously wouldn’t have been able to. This was taken a step further by IDEO which revealed a headband designed to monitor brainwaves, enabling individuals to track when they are most mindful, confident and productive.

The concept of technology allowing us to know our bodies like never before was explored in depth by Anne Wojcicki in her keynote talk about her genetic profiling organisation – 23andme. Wojcicki believes that knowing your genetic health risks will help you make changes and decisions that will allow you to prevent diseases before they happen. She believes that everyone has the right to understand their own health and genetic information; genetic profiling is reaching the critical mass point where it will spill over into the mainstream opening up new avenues for people to explore their health and understand their bodies.

Privacy may have been the biggest theme of SXSW but by peeling that back it is easy to see how the underlying message in the key talks was a call to arms for people to become more aware of their permanence – both digital and real – and how they can develop more of an ownership of both versions of themselves. This will become ever more important as new technology comes to the fore that will allow us to dig deeper into ourselves as human beings and hopefully help us to prevent an ever encroaching surveillance society.

About the author

Lauren is Insight Executive at the IPA.

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