SXSW Called for a Deeper Reflection on the Future of Big Tech

Stemming from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call to dismantle these ‘titans’

Learn how the creator economy is transforming the marketing landscape, and how to cultivate partnerships to grow engaged communities at Social Media Week: The Creatorverse, May 16–18 in NY. Register now to secure your early bird pass.

If having Brené Brown, the guru of “courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy,” as the kick-off to SXSW 2019 was a harbinger of things to come, perhaps we’re on the way toward vanquishing the divisive demons that have dominated the political discourse in the U.S. today. Finally bringing our culture’s obsession with both mental and physical health and wellness closer to the forefront of understanding ourselves and others helps to bring some coherence to our description of the roots and remedies proposed to the polarizing political issues that divide us as a society.

Or at least the view from SXSW makes that case.

There was a surprising amount of agreement—from the technology entrepreneurs to political aspirants to new-age celebrity advisors—on how we need to take responsibility for ourselves, others, our country and the very powerful technologies that have become truly integrated into our lives. And so, after a decade of technology hero worship in business and culture, it is perhaps no surprise that we’re ready for some mature and far-reaching reflection on where we’re headed in the future and what role technology can and should play in defining that future. It’s one reason I love SXSW as much as I do; digging deep on issues like this doesn’t really happen at the other major marketing and media tentpoles.

After a decade of technology hero worship in business and culture, it is perhaps no surprise that we’re ready for some mature and far-reaching reflection.

For those of us in marketing and technology, SXSW had always been where world-changing platforms emerged from garages to add their contributions to building out the internet around the planet. So it struck me as particularly poignant, even ironic, that the most provocative story out of SXSW this year was Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up the tech titans. (And Warren was by far not the only political figure to appear at what felt like a preview of the Iowa caucuses: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made two appearances, and ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz also tried out some of his stump material.)

Warren’s battle cry became the touchstone issue of the conference, and almost every speaker and moderator considered the implications of such a prospect. Then, right after the conference, news hit that Facebook suffered an hours-long blackout and stood to face a criminal investigation. It’s interesting for a few reasons that the proposal was often considered an alternative to the movement for more regulation of the platforms.

First, because of the overt political manipulation of communities but also because of decidedly harmful expression and consequent bullying. An entire panel devoted to “Advertisers’ Responsibility in the Digital Age,” which advertiser watchdog Sleeping Giants spoke, took marketers to task for only temporarily pulling advertising from platforms for bad behavior rather than withholding budgets until the platforms truly course corrected.

Marketers, for their part, mainly want to regain some measure of control over a valuable ecosystem where their brands will not be associated with the aforementioned negative content. While many consider regulation to be either impossible or undesirable on free-speech grounds, anti-trust action could usher in a world of many more digital platform alternatives for individuals and brands.

Here, political, technical and health-related issues converge. Much has been made of the potential for social platforms to be harmful to individuals’ health as well as to social discourse. And the issues are not always separated. There’s currently a lot of discussion over how the contempt people feel toward their political enemies can lead to violent actions or mental health issues.

Whether Senator Warren’s proposal remains politically salient as we march toward the 2020 elections or whether the definition of the platforms as monopolies will stand legal challenges, the reigning sentiment at SXSW this year was focused on reclaiming our health and agency against monumental division brought on by digital giants whose brilliance has been eclipsed by the negative ways they can be used. And that optimistic turn of events can only bode well for marketers in the future.