Here is to the return of normalcy: there will be no new normal.

It is so good to see the thousands of SXSW’ers in the streets of Austin. Austin, one of my favorite cities in the world. When COVID19 struck the city, in 2019, cancelling the convention, I could feel its pain. Bizarrely, and without noticing, that pain nestled deeper than I cared to admit. Being back in the Texan sun, has weaponed me with a bigger smile,  more energy and a revived optimism. Being cut off flying, traveling, human beings, hugs, diners, long conversations, heated debates for 24 months taxed me a lot. Most of the people I’m meeting at SXSW have the same feeling. A feeling of liberation. Of setting the mind free. Of turning the COVID19 page.

The busy humming of conference-goers from around the world  in the convention hall, in the streets, in front of the food trucks, in  elevators en restaurants marks the return to a normalcy, a re-start. A launch.

Everybody is back. The keynotes are defiant, future-building, stern lessons are taken from the past. New trends are carving themselves out of the thick pack of keynotes: the great resignation.  Purpose driven business models. Corporate value-sets. Employer branding. Hybrid working. Decentralized management structures. Renewed mobility. Honeycomb-structured consultancy. Accelerated digitization and automation. Artificial and deep-learning finally making a practical difference. The power of social connections, of ambassador-based influence, of quantum computing. The move towards platform-everything, towards API driven consolidations. The hunger for more, better, faster data. The craving for adequate data-analyses, real time visualization. Digital transformation. Augmented Humanity. The focus on experience, on participation, co-construction and groundswell. The need for clarity, honesty, sincerity, bravery, energy and a healthy touch of magic. The need to accelerate, with a build-in necessity to take the time to take time to reflect.

Everybody is back, but it is not a back to normal. It will never be.  The ever-present typically SXSW pulsing is here. It is clear, personal, deep and profound. It celebrates digital, but it brings back a golden nugget: the mysterious power of in person  gathering.

Austin’s South by Southwest has returned its Texas mega-conference covering tech, innovation, society, music and the wider culture to a leading and stellar level. Among the top innovative trends this year are the future of work, the future of democracy, the future of communications and media, climate change, Web3 , the decentralized web,  freedom – of opinion and speech-, fake news, cybersecurity, crypto driven finances and art and -what else- the Metaverse.

SXSW’s 35th anniversary comes against a sobering reality of a pandemic entering its third year;  a worrying intellectual, factual, economical and spiritual combative polarization and  an aggressive conflict in the very heart of Eastern Europe. It brings, in pure Star Wars style “A New Hope”. Life is back, is live, and is more antagonistic than ever.  Bruce Sterling voiced it so well: all the set-back makes us stronger, different, more resilient, more creative and more hopeful.

Meta’s Facebook and its iconic CEO Mark Zuckerberg were probably the most resented topics of SXSW. The liberal thinkers do not take the tremendous -negative- influence of the online influence gargantuan lightly. The powerful echo chambers, the fake news, the self-enriching logarithmic manipulations are more than frowned upon.

Mark Zuckerberg showed courage and brass balls by confronting the audience 14 years after his first -very hesitant- appearance at SXSW. He explained the how and why of the Metaverse and Web3. It is clear that Zuckerberg is looking to re-ignite and expand Meta -formerly known as Facebook- into a thorough acceleration into the mysterious worlds of augmented, virtual and reality.

For Zuckerberg, the “metaverse,” is  “next generation of internet.” He sees it as another  social platforms where people can meet for professional, personal and entertainment. The very set-up of the Metaverse will enable a plethora of experiences, centered around the immersive, even haptic nature of the platform.

He sees it as his leadership duty to double down on what he identified as the future of the multi-billion company rather than stick to todays reality. Metaverse is the extension of reality into the digital world. A world that is -let’s face it- any bit as real as the real world. We will need to rethink our sense of normalcy and reality. As a species, as an economy, as a society we became -accelerated by COVID19- truly hybrid, living in a dual world with challenging,  new, but exciting  dynamics.

I think that at some level, the future sort of belongs to people who believe in it more than others,” he said. That rings a bell.

Typing this note, under the light of a mysterious moon, overlooking the soothing waters of Lake Travis, I have a smile on my face.

I am a believer.

Birds aren’t real

I think every bloody communicator, strategist, marketeer and media guru has scratched his head over the past months in despair, and has looked at his social media in awe. How the flying spaghetti monster do all those  conspiracy theory posts get so much attention? How, in the name of all that is holy, can liquid crap find such a prominent place in and on thousands of timelines. Admit, if we could crack that code and be even half so successful for our paying clients we would be rich half-gods by now, sipping gold induced coconut milk on a superyacht leisurely anchored in the shade of the Blue Lagoon.

Fake news and conspiracy theories are polluting our news feeds, are challenging the very common sense of a big part of the population, has put a reality star in a president’s seat, has eroded the reputation of countless scientists, and has single handedly slowed down the fight against COVID19 by questioning vaccines.

Governments and decisionmakers, captains of industry, influencers, journalists, companies and their C-suite have had to endure gossip and fake news sweeping away credibility and common sense.

Blame Facebook

Frances Haugen tells us to blame Facebook, and by analogy most probably the other logarithm driven social connection and search platforms.   Frances prides herself in a strong sense of pride in democracy and responsibility for civic participation. You might know her as the “Facebook whistle-blower”:  the woman that is giving Mark Zuckerberg the flying hillibillies because she is spilling the beans on how Facebook and its evil machines manipulate the very pulse of thought and sentiment of the human race.

Frances is not a dreamy Generation Z-er. She holds a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Olin College and a MBA from Harvard. She specialized in algorithmic product management, and has worked on ranking algorithms at Google, Pinterest, and Yelp. At Facebook she  lead he Civic Misinformation team, which deals with democracy, misinformation  and counter-espionage.

Profit over purpose

Frances became increasingly alarmed by the choices Facebook makes in prioritizing stone coldly their own profits over public safety, and putting people’s lives at risk. The logarithms are -on purpose- flooding our timelines and news feeds with controversial content, contrarian news snacks and alarming conspiracies. The reason is simple: we engage more with those bizarreries than we do with regular “vetted” content, or even the content of our friends. That engagement generates more money.  At great personal risk, Frances made the courageous decision to blow the whistle on Facebook.

The birds are, wait, what?

Early 2017. Peter McIndoe is in Memphis and is couch-crashing at a friends place. Donald J. Trump just got the keys to the White House, and started hanging his gold-embroided curtains in the Oval Office.  Pro-Trump fanatics where in town to “neutralize” a women’s march. Peter McIndoe wanted to participate in the moment, ripped a poster off a wall, flipped it over and wrote the first three random words on the white cardboard: “Birds Aren’t Real.”

Waking up as a celebrity.

A  spontaneous reflex, a hilarious joke, feeding of the absurdity of peoples stupidity. An afternoon well spent. McIndoe went to bed. He would wake up an overnight celebrity. HOs hilarious billboard was picked up by social media “reporters” an plastered all over the internet. Journalists hunted him down, curious to know the story. Conspiracy complotters and Q’ers drank the new slogan like lizards on a hot sand dune. McIndoe decided to see how far the joke would carry… and talked to press and the Internet. Yes: Birds are NOT real. They are surveillance drones. Proof? Well… have you ever seen a baby pigeon? Journalists thought he was serious. The movement “Birds aren’t Real” was born.

The Bird Drone Agenda

McIndoe dropped out of college in 2018 and has spent a whopping 4 years in-character to lure journalists and the world. He used his psychological background  and conspiracy theorist cosplay to rally and cement a solid and growing community around the absurdity.

A real parody and satiric movement -complete with swag, slogans, rallies, and mass demonstrations- grew around this character. Real people in, real life were/are pushing a “bird drone agenda”. Birds are Not Real amassed millions of followers on social media, and hundreds of official chapters have popped up at colleges all across the nation. Bird-truthers  got almost up to par with Qanon.

From absurdity to learning curve

Peter finally came out of character in December of 2021. While some Birdtruthers still are genuinely believing the parody, it is McIndoe’s intention to use the momentum of the movement to create a siolid understanding on how easy it is to fool media and general public. He wants to help and illustrate how it is done, and what we can learn from it.

McIndoe wants to keep it safe, and cool. “Birds Aren’t Real is made to make sure it doesn’t turn into a negative end result on the world. BAR is a safe space for people to come together and process, discuss and digest the conspiracy takeover of America. We are holding a mirror in the face of media, journalist and analysts. Let’s laugh at the madness rather than be overcome by it.

Peter outsmarted trained journalists, hawk-eyed analysts, police forces and millions of people. His weapons: energy, satire, a good understanding of group dynamics and bias, wit and perseverance.  

We should applaud Peter: he shows us the vulnerability of our democratic and corporate systems. We should hire people like Peter.

Peter is a Red Monkey…

Lab-grown chicken wings will not save us from Global Warming and kind volcanoes grow islands…

Well there I was, like a kid in a candy store, sipping a cold beverage, and talking with Bruce Sterling… for a full 90 minutes.  Bruce Sterling is a Texas born American science-fiction author. He wrote a plethora of best-selling books, novels and short fiction and is one of the fathers of  the cyberpunk subgenre. Since 1976 Sterling amazes the world with provocative and accurate visions of the future. Above all, and since I was a teenager, he is one my favorite authors.

We talked about post-Trump, pre-Trump, Putin, China, the Metaverse, the Zuckerverse, vulcanoes, robotized gardening disasters, Austin, COVID, Elon Musk, the future,  broken kitchen chairs, oligarchy, Abbott, cyber warfare, actor-presidents, united European armies, bullshit economics, resistant forces, design, asbestos in post iron curtain Ukrainian buildings and death. That summarizes about the first 15 minutes of our chat. I’ll share more about Bruce and his razor-sharp vision after his keynote on Wednesday.

Nothing really matters

A typical Sterling oneliner hit me like a torpedo midships :  “The future does not matter when you’re broke, broken or death.” Bruce Sterling got a severe hit by Covid and admitted writing his will while suffering. “And you can feel the same in this festival”, he said: “It’s rattled and shaken to its very roots. It touched death, it is slowly recovering, but it has seen despair in the face. The world has changed…”

Shaken, not broken

You can indeed feel it. The festival, the speakers and the audience are shaking the grim drips of COVID like a wet dog reemerging from a cold, salty sea. You can feel that the optimistic innovative future vision of SXSW got hit hard. It is gathering steam, accelerating bravely towards destination blue sky, but the dent in the trust and the hurt are still there.

But, this is day three… the fists of destiny might have grazed the Texan congress, it is still standing, and it standing tall.

The world according to Amy Webb

Nothing better than a double dose of Amy Webb on the rocks to feel energized. The nuclear powered Amy Webb  advises CEOs of the world’s most-admired companies,  whispers three-star admirals and generals in the ear, and shows the senior leadership of central banks and intergovernmental organizations the ropes. The SXSW veteran is founder  and CEO of the Future Today Institute, a leading foresight and strategy firm that helps leaders and their organizations prepare for complex futures. Amy Webb was named by Forbes as one of the five women changing the world, listed as the BBC’s 100 Women of 2020, and in 2021 was ranked on the Thinkers50 list of the 50 most influential management thinkers globally. Her latest book, The Genesis Machine, explores the futures of synthetic biology.

Celebrating her  15th annual trend report, Amy Webb and her team decided to go for the full monty. The report is 668 pages long, its wisdom goes oceans deep. 574 longitudinal tech, societal and science trends are covered. The whole is served in a most digestible format of 14 sub-divisions.

RE-perception is key

I’m proud of the report. But the report alone, the trends by themselves are not enough,” Webb said: ““You need to use trends to help you re-perceive the future. Re-perception is the very base of insights that move the needle, of change that matters. Re-perception helps  you influence the future, and change it. People and organizations need to take up responsibility and conduct actions right now to change behavior. The future outcomes need to be better.”

Words matter, certainly in the fast-moving and solid squared thinking world of Amy Webb: she suggests that we all stop talking about Climate Change. We need to call it what it is: a Climate Emergency.  The biggest problem facing the world right now is not creating Web3, collecting NFT’s, pondering about whether or not the Metaverse makes sense , or panic over AI Robots taking over the planet. It is about making changes about this emergency fast, and thorough. It might just save us.

The future is closer than you think

Webb highlighted three blocks of trends at SXSW: Artificial Intelligence, Web 3/the Metaverse/Blockchain and Synthetic Biology. “We’re getting closer to the day when AI networks do make their own decisions without a human in the loop. And if that has you freaked out, you are not the only one.”

Enter the metaverse at your own risk,  you will be vulnerable to influences. Regulation is needed, but not there yet. The de-centralized  web should be bout transparency, interoperability, and trust. But someone will have to guard and police it.

If you realize that 725 million chickens need to die each year just to answer the American need for chicken wings during the Super Bowl, you’ll understand that labgrown chicken meat is no luxury. Synthetic biology serves us chicken meat directly made from stem cells. Enjoy your meal.

You can see the complete key-note hereunder. It is well worth your time. You can download the full report on this link, for free.  The level of detail, the clarity is beyond amazing. Amy rocks!

Grow an island

Let me end this day with another Bruce Sterling quote: “While I was ill, I followed the news regarding the explosion of the volcano in La Palma. It created itself from nothing, burned stone into an island that was paradise to people for thousands of years. And now it is growing more land for us to live on. All change is finally for the better.”

Human connections and humane technology

As the second day of SXSW unravels, the first distinct lines start to show themselves. First, about all: this the most human SXSW that I am attending. Speakers, panelists, moderators and day hosts are beyond themselves to finally be able to interact with a live audience: real people, in real chairs, asking real questions in real microphones. Friends are throwing away all suggestions of social distancing, and dive into each other’s arms. For some -for most- it is the first time they see each other in three years.

The human connection

The human connection, the handshake, the bear-hug, the hesitant friend-zone kiss. You can feel the power and warmth of real ife connections sizzle and burn. While we all appreciate the convenience of distance this, distance that, the gathering in real life does good; physically and morally.

No filters

Secondly, a lot of filters are gone. SXSW was always a very “right in your face” congress, but now all devils are unchained: the things are being exposed, called out and thrown intoi the open. Nintendo calling Facebook a non-innovative company. Professor of marketing at NYU and outspoken provocateur Scott Galloway (‘Prof G’ for the aficionados)  came out swinging and double punching with his signature vinegar marinated, bone-dry cynicism. Just short of calling Mark Zuckerberg an idiot he announced the inevitable death of The Zuckerverse. He could not help tearing apart the idiocy of space tourism.  

Democratic nominee for governor, Beto O’Rourke  slammed the Republican incumbent Greg Abbott in harsh terms: verbally punching two fingers in Abbotts eye sockets, and a not so gentle knee into the groin while calling Abbott a thug and an authoritarian. “ I mean, he’s got his own oligarchie here in the state of Texas.”  Ouch.

Tech hang-over

Thirdly, the tech loving conference is giving big tech a cold shoulder this year. Especially Zuckerberg’s Meta is receiving a real battering. But the digital hang-over exceeds Facebook. It is more in-depth, more general.  Summarized, the SXSW audience is a bit tired from “the tech because of the tech”.  If tech is not helping us, is not elevating us, she has no reason to be. Period.

Humane Technology

Tristan Harris  is the thriving force behind the Center for Humane Technologies he is an Entrepreneur, a lightning fast design thinker, a techno-philosopher, a crytical -but optimistic- systems thinker and humane digital activist with a genuine and cantaguious  passion for design and technology that amplifies human potential and shapes subtle qualities of the human spirit: “I enjoy working with people who deal in the arts of nuance and precision and who examine the subtle ways the map is never the territory.

I’m fascinated by hidden influences – invisible forces that shape human thought and action. Especially the intersection of belief systems, social situations, cognitive biases and cultural pressures that orchestrate people’s choices and beliefs outside conscious awareness.”

Kill the bias

Harris pointed out coldly how systemic bias and human laissez-faire, laissez-aller rocks us all asleep. He casted a compelling story on how we are convinced that we should give users and clients always what they wat, that every tech has good and bads, that we always had moral panics, that we should maximize personalization, that technology is neutral, that we should generate growth over all costs, that we should be obsessed over metrics, and that we should capture attention. Always.

These old paradigms are biased, untrue and dangerous. We should rather respect the human vulnerabilities, minimize the harmful externalities, create shared understanding, support fairness and justice, consciously center values, and help people thrive.

Tristan Harris : “Our species has made tremendous strides in reducing many aspects of human suffering. We have the most advanced technological capabilities in human history, expanded life spans, and unprecedented access to information. There’s much to celebrate.

But the forces driving these positive trends have also led to unprecedented risks. Many societies are reckoning with growing wealth inequality, declining mental health, catastrophic impacts of climate change, and entrenched systems driven by those with power exploiting those without, for example based on religion, age, race, gender, where we live (urban vs. rural), or physical ability. People increasingly distrust institutions associated with science, medicine, and law.

Meanwhile, we’re extracting from nature at massive scales, far faster than it can replenish. We are destroying the delicate ecological balance that allows humans to thrive. And the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how fragile our interconnected world has become.

We need tech more than ever

Harris is convinced that we need now, more than ever, compelling technology that builds—rather than undermines—humankinds’ capacity to face complex threats. He hopes that we use our power with mindfulness of the consequences and accelerate catastrophic risks we might generate. “We are all masters of our trade, technologists… we are behind the steering wheel: we get to decide. Will we strengthen our users and society so humanity can face these challenges? Will we invent tech that assists us in working on global challenges?”

Harris, in his keynote and on his website,  is convinced that we are at a civilizational crossroads. We’re at  precarious moment that requires focused, coordinated, and wise action. It will take all of us, each serving in our best capacity, to meet the moment. We are unable to meet our biggest global challenges if our technology distracts us, divides us, and downgrades our collective ability to solve problems.

Technology -in his eyes- exists in a complex system of human vulnerabilities, economic and social mechanisms, and deeply held paradigms of thought. We desperately need a truly humane technology that enhances our potential for focus, shared understanding, and deep collaboration, and strengthens our capacity to tackle our biggest global challenges.

Humane technology protects our common good and our own well-being so we can be of service to each other.

Tristan Harris is my kind of guy…. The world might be all right after all..

The Art of Gathering: together we translate purpose into magic

Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer of SXSW is a happy man. After the very last minute cancellation of the 2020 edition of Austin’s finest congress, he went through a decimation of his staff, experienced almost the kiss of death by bankruptcy, and managed by the skin of his teeth to save the furniture by holding a virtual event in 2021. Seeing the in-person crowd flocking back together  in Austin’s congress center is the crown on two years of hard work.  Forrest is convinced the world needs the festival more than ever.

The world is brutal

The need and power and the value of inspiration have never been more pressing,” Forrest said. “The world outside of SXSW has never been more brutal.” Truth be told: the tanks slowly rolling into the Ukrainian cities is on everyone’s mind, especially for the visiting Europeans to whom the war strikes way too close to home to feel comfortable.

Another cloud shading SXSW’s usually sunny demeanor is the blow that was delivered by the Texan legislators to the LGBTQ+, and women communities through anti-transgender bills, and anti-abortion laws. Forrest condemned them firmly, but the laws signed by Governor Greg Abbott are met with anger and disbelief. Some speakers did not descend to Austin out of protest, some brands refrained from participating, and there is a growing pressure on the event-organizers to relocate the festival altogether.

We can move the needle

Forrest is convinced that the festival, and the people attending the congress can help changing the world for the better: “Do the people at SXSW have the power to change what is happening in Eastern Europe? Do the people in this room have the power to change repulsive legislation we are seeing in Texas and other states? Yes, we do. I think the people in this room can help move the needle forward, ” said Hugh Forrest.

Collective power

He sees the collective brainpower at SXSW as a bright spotlight on  the possibilities of progress, of humanity, of positive thinking, technological features and innovative approaches. The most innovative and revolutionizing thinkers in a plethora of disciplines and professions pack a ton of power and  strengthen each other. Forrest hopes that the inspiration and energy received at SXSW gives hope to approach these difficult problems.

He pointed out the reinvigorating power of rediscovering face-to-face interactions, to meet in person, and to brainstorm and ideate as a group. “It may sound hippy-dippy even utopian”, he said: “but gathering together and coming up with new ideas provides hope for the future and for resolutions to the world’s problems.”

The art of Gathering

Priya Parker, then kicked SXSW 2022 into motion.   Parker packs more power in her left pinky than a truckload of nitroglycerine. Sharp, intelligent, to the point and energizing she fueled the hope of Forrest.  Parker is an American facilitator, strategic advisor extra-ordinaire, and author of one of the most revealing books I’ve read  in the last decennium The Art Of Gathering.  She is the founder of Thrive Labs, and assists decision makers, activists, captains of industry, elected officials, corporate executives, educators, and philanthropists to build transformative gatherings; shared moments that matter. Conflict management and crafting joined solutions through meaningful connections are her secret weapons. (I admit: I have a solid case of biased brain crush. I will not even apologize)

We gather to engage

How can we gather here in Austin, while there is this brutal invasion on the other side of the world. How do we resolve that with having fun at SXSW?” Forrest asked her.

Parker explained that gathering together is by no means some cheap escapism, on the contrary: we gather to engage, to fortify, to mourn, to grieve, to make sense of the world and harness the power of those captive moments of togetherness. “At moments of crisis is the most important moments to come together,” she said.

Cut the useless, double down on meaningful

In her book The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker argues that we suffer from a overdose of useless encounters and meetings in our lives.  Enhanced even more by a quick culture of hollow AudioVisual meetings, accelerated by the COVID social distancing, we have way too many empty meetings in our lives that are lackluster and  worryingly unproductive. A shame, because the very purpose of meetings is to establish the opposite.

Priya Parker points out that we rely too much on rusty routine and the incomprehensible conventions whether social, or business.  She believes moments together should be celebrated, should have a well-defined purpose, should focus on distinctiveness and add value by and for the people involved. If there is no clear common purpose  for a meeting -in person or at a distance- , there should be no meeting. Parker is clear: do not call your mom because you have to… call your mom because you have something to say, something to share, or a good moment to give.  Don’t meet your client because the bi-weekly meeting is penciled in: gather with your client to get closer together, better to the business at hand, grow in co-construction. Change starts by adding value, and creating value. Meetings without value -human, sentimental, economic, practical or other- are a waste of time and energy, disrespectful, and should be cancelled.  

Create meaningful experiences

At this time, hesitantly exiting 25 months of COVID isolation, coming together is more important than ever.  Parker pleads for a human-centered (technology backboned) approach to gathering that will help everyone create meaningful, memorable experiences, large and small, for work and for play.

Push and pull communication, interaction and focused dialogue around clear topics give meaning and set into motion change .  Every participant in a meeting becomes an actor in and an ambassador of its success.

Priya Parker shows how high-powered gatherings change relations, projects, businesses and the world. Meaningful connections. Communication professionals, connective strategists, media planners, creative conceptors, marketing powerplayers: they should listen to Priya. How do we get rid of meaningless connections between brands and consumers? How can we add energy and purpose at every point and moment of contact? How can we make every contact, every encounter count.

You create value by adding value…. Do we?

Fake News : for worse and good…

Who do you trust? Who do you know? Who do you really, really know? Most of us have been baffled over the past months with how colleagues, clients, friends, even loved ones turned out to be way different that we thought they were. It starts small. A little like on a controversial post. A little share of a doubtful message. A snarky remark in a comment. Before you knew what happened, they turned into the living death. Spreaders of fake news and conspiracy theories. Believers of global, Illuminati lead machinations: massive election fraud. Child eating politicians. The Great Reset. Rockefeller sponsored massive virus induced genocide. Bill Gates propelled vaccination attempts to inject us with bio-bots hidden in vaccines… 5G controlled humanity.

Smartly Eroding Trust

While mankind was facing a global pandemic with about all computer power and science at its disposal,  an old and sneaky enemy re-emerged from the abyss of forgottenness: dis-information. Fake News. A powerful and underestimated threat that is attacking the very foundations of civil and moral  society. Carefully planted, media propelled, peer-shared, logarithm empowered disinformation, fake news and YouTube endorsed conspiracy theories and Q fabrications are spreading like wildfire and are slowly but surely eroding public trust in civic and scientific institutions on all levels. The ones wielding these doubtful -and arguably wrong- info believe themselves to be intellectual superior, better informed, most critical thinkers. The label the rest of us “sleepers”, “sheep” or “sheeple”.

Echo-chambering towards the void

John Sixpack and Karen Doe believe more eagerly a cheaply edited and poorly glued together online video rant from a nitwit with a mission, than seasoned scientists, doctors, historians and academics. Experts are having the uttermost difficulty to maintain even an illusion of a big part of the public’s faith. The battering from social media proclaimed “experts”, dreamers and contrarian thinkers is multiplied and boosted by the spiralling power of the echo-chambers . The Quest against fake-news is a major topic at this edition of SXSW. How does it work? Why does it happen? How can it be stopped? Should it? Where does freedom of speech end? How can journalists, media, influencers -at all levels- embark on the effort to maintain and rebuild the public’s trust and fortify the pillars of society in the face of this treacherous threat.

Educate, educate, educate

At SXSW EDU debates were heated on how students should/could be teached to spot misinformation and, more importantly, how to understand the agogic, neuro-scientific and demagogic forces behind it. The National Association for Media Literacy Education wants to bring the challenges of teaching about misinformation in and out of the classroom.  Fact-checkers are explaining how Fake News can be spotted, how things are checked. I had a chat with workplace experts (yes, that is a job) how Fake News can ruin the workplace in the blink of an eye, and can rotten a company culture to the bone. I had a beer with an ethical teacher congratulating us, Belgians, on the great international example of “Lead Stories », the innovative fact checking website at the intersection of big data and journalism created by Maarten Schenk: “Just Because It’s Trending Doesn’t Mean It’s True.” Roger that Maarten!

Media literacy is the key

Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, executive director of the nonprofit National Association of Media Literacy Education, explained that the value of teaching students how to spot and tackle misinformation, should be more than a class to teach. It should be installing a skill set that can be applied in any subject, on any topic, always, everywhere. “For us, media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication,” Ciulla Lipkin said. It generates the capacity to critical thinking. A trained mind is more difficult to influence, more robust to disinformation attacks.  Fair question is: who is qualified (read “clean” and “neutral”) enough to train? And, more importantly, what is disinformation, and does it/does it not have a reason/a right to be?

Michelle Ciulla Lipkin pointed out that the growing trend of black-or-whitening complex realities does not help. “One of the struggles with disinformation and fake news is that it puts information way too often in two camps: right, or wrong, fact or fiction. In reality, most often it is more complicated than that. The truth is a grey area….”

Truth over profit?

There is a lot of finger pointing as well: towards journalists, who often give equal airtime to peer-reviewed experts and shady charlatans, and as such credibilize the latter. Towards media who “cite” more and more, and tend to fact-check less and are losing the art of reporting topics in a clear perspective. Towards the GAFAM, nicely rebranded “G-Mafia” by Amy Webb, because their powerful logarithms end up filtering all contrarian messages out of one’s timeline. Towards the advertising industry, for keeping on sponsoring the very dynamics that spread fake news. Towards brands, for way too often lacking the guts and the balls to withdraw their billions from shady news and entertainment platforms. Towards the entire communications industry, for not self-regulating. Towards politicians, for not enforcing fact-checking by law. Towards companies, for not investing enough in clear and interactive push-pull communication.

Deep-fake for good

A session on how government, academia and industry are using deep-fakes and similar applications for good caught my attention. It froze every hair on my back. A session on how several “groundbreaking positive-use cases have emerged where operatives use deep-fake and fake news tech to protect privacy, enhance accessibility and even inspire justice” just beggars believe. For crying out loud: you cannot fight bad with bad. You fight it with good. The “I use my deep-fake to counter your evil intentions and fake news” makes me think on how James Bond uses women to save the planet. It is not a pretty comparison.

Start with… you.

People are increasingly doubting every single answer they get. So, start building up trust. Put things in perspective. Show there is a rainbow of colors between black and white. Be understanding, but firm. Show your clients the ethical path, the balanced choice. The battle for the consumer is fierce. Once the dust and smoke settles, it will be clear that brands that proved to be truthful and trustworthy have a competitive edge… and that is a bankable advantage.

Trust me, I am a consultant.

A Token of your Crypto is not perse an NFT, you know?

Every single year, the heat is on. Everybody is looking for The Thing that will make SXSW sing. The tech that will be the talk of town. The thing not to miss. Countless agencies, investors, promoters and owners have been burning through major heaps of cash to be top-of mind at the Austin exhibition. The most notable winner was, without doubt, the launch of Twitter here at SXSW 2007. The most noticeable loser is probably Meerkat in 2016. After a very promising hype just before the conference, it was killed in a minute by the very same Twitter.

If I have to put some money down, there are two obvious contenders. The Metaverse in all its angles and possibilities, and the great come back from never really gone away: blockchain and its growing number of derivatives: the cryptocurrencies, the derived coins, the tokens, the non-fungible tokens, the smart contracts, the POP’s (proof of Attendance) or POAP (Proof of Attendance Protocol): essentially a blockchain protocol that proves you were somewhere at a certain time. All this will be in close harmony with talks about Web 3.0 and the decentralized internet. I hope you’re up to speed with your DAO? Your decentralized autonomous organization ?

Men in Black

It’s a bit concerning that a small army of smart looking financial business people cramped in very fashionable hoodies (that Hugo Boss suit would scream ‘murder’ at SXSW) and great corporate hair are taking on SXSW, in a town (Austin) that has as tagline “keep Austin weird”. Just looking at the adds, take overs, signage all over Austin, there is no doubt: NFT’s, the blockchain and WEB 3.0 will be served in all seizes and flavors.

We’re going to see a ton of NFT companies and startups in Austin,” acknowledges Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive festival, to the AustinINNO: “They have a lot of money. They’re spending money. Every inch of concrete that can be sponsored is going to have an NFT company attached to it.”

The Dollyverse !

I counted well over fifty blockchain/crypto/ NFT/Token-theme presentations, demo’s, art-set-ups, panels, activations, gatherings, diners and events. Global superstar and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nominee Dolly Parton (singer of “Jolene”, godmother of Miley Cyrus, you’re welcome.) is partnering with FOX Entertainment’s Blockchain Creative Labs to launch “Dollyverse,” an audience-centric Web3 experience. “There’s almost nothing more important to me than connecting with my fans. And I’m almost always up for trying something new and different. I’d say releasing NFTs at my first ever appearance at SXSW, with James Patterson by my side, definitely counts as new and different!” said Dolly Parton (76). Look, If the Queen of Country music is going Metaverse… it might be time to take a deeper look at it.

There is another Musk

I’am also particularly looking forward to the session with Kimbal Musk (yes, Elon’s baby millionaire brother) on DAO’s (decentralized autonomous organizations). The core idea that decentralized blockchain-based voting and governance will revolutionize centralized corporate decision-making, is not new…it looks like DAO’s have finally grown to maturity as investors, non-for-profit organizations, charity and community projects start rolling them out to reduce administrative waste, carve out the spent on middlemen and optimize resource allocation.

Time for the « HOW »

I must admit that it’s getting interesting. After years of presentations on the « what” and the “why”, I was left a bit hungry and mildly frustrated. Truth, I made more money with a couple of coins than with my -very modest- savings account. But was that it, the big crypto-everything? It looks that here at SXSW, at least some answers are going to be given on the “HOW”.

How will this enable us, common mortals, to deliver prove of our assets? How will it help artists and thinkers to secure and monetize intellectual property? Can craftsmen, artists, provide proof of authenticity? Brands help to certify provenance and applied ethics around products? Can it end the sweatshops? Stop bio-food and short-supply-chain-swindle? Can it help recruiters drilling down to the real academic credentials of a candidate faster?  

Can it help refugees to prove who they are and where they come from, complete with their academic and asset history? Can it be used to track use of art, and fairly pay artists? Will it revolutionize dating apps? Replace loyalty cards? Will it replace banks, brokers or notaries? Will it help secure medical records, while facilitating need-based access? Will it allow media agencies to deal wit data in a responsible way? Will it help protect consumers with their basic privacy and digital identity rights?

I have the questions. Will SXSW have the answers?

« He talks about you in his sleep
And there’s nothing I can do to keep
From crying when he calls your name

And I can easily understand
How you could easily take my man
But you don’t know what he means to me
Jolene »

Dolly Parton

SXSW 2022: Songs of the Future, if there is one…

Hopefully scared. That is the atmosphere I encountered these last past pre-SXSW days. Austin Texas and its legendary SXSW festival of music, film, interactive, tech and innovation received an uppercut two years ago. Sars-CoV-2 kicked it squarely in the nuts, cancelling the show a mere couple of days before it started. It left the SXSW organizers hanging in the ropes, fighting for air, on the brink of bankruptcy. It touched the very fabric of the city. SXSW is an economic behemoth, bringing in a whopping 350 million into the area. The non-festival in 2020 and the virtual festival last year thoroughly choked the Austin area. Various SXSW dependent or reliant companies did not survive.

SXSW 2022 starts on Friday. The city just entered Code 2, which means that masks can be left at home, except for the festival premises: there, proof of vaccination, tests, and masks are obliged. Austin is happy SXSW is back… but Austin is scared. Will there be again around 200.000 people showing up? While that is perfect for the local economy, locals are also frightened: will the flux of people flying in from all over not re-ignite COVID in the county?

Hopefully scared. It defines it well. But SXSW itself focuses on the future, on new frontiers, dreamy horizons, optimistic dawns of better times. The very best of future-forward thinkers, designers of tech, wizards of data and artificial intelligence, brilliant and creative philosophers, engineers of innovation and solutions, masters of digital arts, scientists and obscure internet enhancers will deliver a couple of thousand keynotes over the coming 10 days.  

I expect an unorthodox cocktail of boundless creativity and untamed innovative technology to design me a world that hops unhindered from disruption to yet another un-normality, where the best of technology and humanity will propel us to augmented happier beings: enjoying personal and financial growth, stability as a species on a recovering planet. But then again, I am a hopelessly optimistic dreamer.

Can they just stop doing that?

The first SXSW in the post-Trump area is confronted with a president on the other side of the ocean, rolling his tanks towards Kyiv. The question that will be hovering in the halls is a simple one: even with all this brilliant thinking, can we survive the rhetoric, muscle rolling and testosterone reeking aggression of slightly balding overripe despotic maniacs? Nobody is fooled: too much toying with those nuclear codes, and there might not be a future after all. At All.

Resized thinking

24 months of home, hybrid and different working have set different habits firmly in place. It showed our human vulnerability to something as small and insignificant as a virus. We can lose all we have, all we are in a couple of weeks. Silicon is getting scarce, ingredients and supplies less readily available. We’re running out of rare minerals, of forests, of clean water, of icecaps, of gletsjers, of precious metals, of time, of human connections. There were fights on parking lots over toilet paper, distribution systems are touching their limits; goods are blocked by wars, by ships in canals, by shut-down economies, by white-van men stuck in traffic. We will have to resize, rethink, re-normal  and re-calibrate our future if we want to have one. Convenience came at a price, we’ll need to switch to a more measured, resized approach. Human and nature positiveness will carry the new ecosystem. A new deal, a new social contract.

Outside of the box? There is no box!

We’re often in awe when people and brands seem to defy the very laws of logic. Amazon seems to create a complete global economy on its own, Elon Musk single-handedly can save  the International Space Station from spiraling into a Russian induced premature death while diverting a couple of hundred satellites over Ukraine so that the resistant forced can benefit from Internet.

Bruce Sterling said it years ago, in the battle of the stacks: the future is kind for those that break the walls of the cardboard boxes, that scatter the rules, that dare to venture in unconventional combinative thinking.  Breaking the code, re-inventing the wheel, challenging the status quo: that is the recipe for most of the winning disruption.

It’s not a wild destructive game however: it’s bold strategies, based on certifiable trends, iron intelligence, bullet proof data. Combining consumer insights with business smarts and new technology platforms.  Working today on what is needed tomorrow. Yesterday’s  thinking will not answer tomorrow’s needs. Carefully combining and blurring the lines between various disciplines and approaches into a holistic mindset proves to be a winning cocktail.

Meta this, Meta that

Of course, the Metaverse, the Tokens, the NFT’s are all over Austin.  There are even POP’s (Proof of Presence), little virtual things that prove that you’ve been part of something. The Metaverse is gaining speed, interest, and breaks out of the gaming niche. The inventor of the Metaverse, Neal Stephenson (author of Snow Crash) on the SXSW centre stage this week will put everything back in perspective: it is about much more than Facebook’s end-game… if the Metaverse is just a quarter of a percentage as cultural changing as in his book, we’re in for some serious Rock ‘and Roll…

Authenticity and Total Experience

Women rights, Black Lives Matter, taking sexuality out of a binary system, children’s rights, values and purpose… it will be all over #SXSW, and rightly so. There is a vogue of new ethical standards that is rolled out through groundswell.  The will of the people against the lines of conventionality. Authenticity will win. It always does.

The total experience: as a human, a parent, a citizen, a worker, a partner will be based on shared value sets, in well-being in all of its ingredients, in supporting technologies, in enabling tech, in a setting that is comforting, but challenging. People are setting out new and fundamentally different life goals.

The future of brands will be to those who listen to the tiniest vibrations of that desire, and act accordingly. The future is less personal, it is mostly shared.

SXSW 2022, let the games begin… I’m ready

Austin, you’re drunk!

In case you wondered where I am: no worries, I’ll be fine. Set up camp in Austin Texas, just in time for SXSW 2022. It will be an in-person, hybrid, weird meta-oriented brain-blower. NFT’s a gogo. Virtual POP’s (Proof of Presence) around every corner. A friend of mine is officially sending his Avatar. I had to RSVP for a virtual party. I saw a mini-van in a maxi-store. Meta is the new Mega. I got a mail from Bruce Sterling.

I looked at this trailer. Then at my White Russian (sorry, White Caucasian that is), then again at the trailer.  Ow boy, this is going to be an interesting week!

Strategy is like off-roading. And Lego.

I often get the question: Why would a civilized, sophisticated and handsome uptown citizen like myself fall for the dirty, muddy and dusty sins of off-roading? Why channel the inner beast in the reckless torturing of two-and-a-half tons of fragile steel on improbable slopes and challenging tracks? Why bear the dirt, the shocks, the smell, the grease, the danger while I could be sipping some Octomore, a nice careful marvel of the Scottish wood and peat whiskey, in my rocker?

Because off-roading is strategy. It’s brain gaming. It’s projecting, observing, calculating, adapting. It’s battlefield training of my management skills, making split second decisions, under pressure, with -literally- a life at stake: mine. Pivoting angles, projecting possible futures, and steering the Landrover in the most plausible one. It’s hardworking, blood boiling, heart-racing, mind-boggling, gut wrenching, nerve-racking and almost embarrassingly satisfying. It’s me.

Small interventions, and quick changes can deliver very different outcomes… in off-roading, in Lego… and in business life…

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