SXSW 2021 : In Retrospect

Josephmark does South by Southwest virtually

By Jessie Hughes, 22 March 2021

The virtual main street of SXSW — flashing lights, flying cars and floating objects everywhere.
SXSW Online March 16–20 2021

Is it possible to experience SXSW burnout virtually? I assumed that the standard festival exhaustion was due to trekking Austin, hungover, with a crumbled timetable… but it seems that brain fatigue stems from mind-expansion: ethical paradoxes, technological lunges, and questioning the fundamental structures that power society.

Sounds like a standard South-by, right?

We came, we saw, and we conquered. We crossed off a bingo board of tech buzzwords and ever-evolving alphabetical acronyms from AI to XR. COVID-19 had its warranted time in the spotlight, and we leaned into the new possibilities of online conferencing. Having taken the weekend to digest, we’re here to crystallise the cream of the crop for you by recapping our favourite essential sessions.

The Thrilling Potential of SexTech | Animating Resilience | Can VR Create Real Change? | Fighting Unconscious Bias in AI with Diversity | Why Do We Fear Innovation?

Wheel of Foreplay by The Future of Sex Lab

The Thrilling Potential of SexTech

“The thrilling potential of sextech isn’t actually about the technology. It’s about the openness to have conversations about sexuality.” — Bryony Cole

The old attitude to sextech was that if it’s not clinical, then it’s creepy. But the leading authority on sextech, Bryony Cole, thinks that this dichotomy in the world of sexuality deserves a rewrite. To set the record straight: even the World Health Organisation classifies sexual pleasure as a human right — and what’s less smutty than the W.H.O. tick of approval? Instead, Bryony encourages us all to reposition our thinking towards inclusivity, equality, intimacy and wellbeing.

Diving into the wildly expansive and all-encompassing domain, Bryony illuminated sextech as an industry that ranges from health and education to pleasure, assault accountability, identity and more. From teledildonics (sex toys controlled via wifi) to apps that monitor the mobility of your swimmers, and sexual assault reporting sites, the rapidly-growing industry of sextech is surging in both consumers and creators.

Not to mention: a global pandemic saw the sale of sex toys triple. Look… we’ve all had a lot of alone time this year. Here at Josephmark, we dipped our toes into the wild world of sextech in the early days of the pandemic when we launched Wheel of Foreplay. Our digital approach to encouraging intimacy during lockdown took us on an eye-opening path into the mystical industry of sexuality technology. Waves were made, and good times were had by all.

But as Bryony explained, sextech goes so much further than just pleasure and intimacy. It’s a critical step forward for inclusivity. A stand out example is startup Handi: a sex toy product for anyone with hand limitations, designed by the disabled community for the disabled community.

“It really is one of those innovative examples because it enables minority populations, like the disabled community with hand limitations, that may seem not as obvious to people, to enjoy sexual pleasure.” — Bryony Cole, Future of Sex

Bryony closes with a signal to savvy investors looking for their next market to back. “It won’t feel as dystopian if we can recognise that our own needs for intimacy and expression are valid. That’s the point where we will discover the true potential of a $122 billion industry that’s been lurking in the shadows.”

Go and have a spin of our Wheel of Foreplay while you plan your next sextech venture!

An illustration from Good Moves — a grainy, greyscale image of the profile of a person sitting on a couch, flicking channels with their remote.
Good Moves by Breeder

Animating Resilience

For our sister motion design studio, Breeder, hearing the pains and gains of animating through a pandemic came as comforting assurance. Motion greats from animation studios including Netflix, Adult Swim and Crunchyroll shared how their teams adapted to the demands of new remote pipelines.

They talked about improved screen resolutions on personal computers, and challenges of editing using collaborative online software but there were also plenty of wins: from becoming global-applicant-friendly for new roles to lucking out on the growing demand for animated content.

However, Adult Swim’s President Michael Ouweleen flagged an intuition that this uproar in content consumption may soon be coming to a plateau as we head out of the pandemic.

“I think it’s going to be the roaring 20’s again, and people are going to be out in the world. We might see a dip in content consumption once everyone’s safe, and we have to be ready for that.”— Michael Ouweleen, Adult Swim

Well, until we can partake in the roaring 20’s uproar (keen) we’re going to be lapping up all of the animated content that Good Moves has to offer. If you’re a fiend for animation, we recommend that you do too.

A .gif of Homer from The Simpsons with a VR headset on, eating the cord like a piece of spaghetti.

Can VR Create Real Change?

“What keeps me going is that as technology continues to evolve, so does the possibility.”Gabo Aora, Lightshed

While we’re not yet living in a virtual society of digital avatars powered by plugged humans (or are we?), the dream and promise of virtual reality as a medium for impact is well and truly alive. Bringing together leaders in the VR sphere, the panel championed VR as a platform for social change, thanks to the unique ability to add dimensionality to storytelling through immersive experiences.

“I think we have a very stereotyped view of what people go through, and how people live. There is a chance now, with this medium, to give some of the nuance, and help understand things in ways that aren’t just binary… aren’t just good or bad.” — Gabo Aora, Lightshed

Describing the unique technological sensation of immersion, Nonny De La Peña of the Emblematic Group shared that “one of the things that really interests me with VR is this idea of the duality of presence; you feel the sensation that you’re in two places at once.”

Our interests lie elsewhere.

At Josephmark, we are currently in the thrilling midst of venturing into our own VR exploration with the goal of eliminating this duality. We’re working to build an entirely singular sense of presence, for full immersion and all of the cognitive benefits it brings. Our evolution of cinema, Haven, is a location-based virtual reality experience that completely blends the virtual and physical worlds for an all-encompassing sensory experience. We’ll release details on how we’re integrating XR wearables for this level of immersion on a coming episode of ABC’s Download This Show.

Tiffany Kieran of EarthXFilm closed the session with an important reminder in response to the inequality in lack of digital access illuminated by the pandemic:

“We often ask how many people have a VR headset at home. But how many people even have a computer or internet at home?” — Tiffany Kieran, EarthXFilm

The six sections of Elements of AI, each of which takes approximately 5 to 10 hours to complete.
The six sections of Elements of AI, each of which takes approximately 5 to 10 hours to complete.

Fighting Unconscious Bias in AI with Diversity

“Small talk is where you give away the most of your unconscious bias.” — Kellie McElhaney, UC Berkeley Haas

In what I consider to be one of the most critical discussions of our current time, a panel of leading AI ethicists, creators and officials sat down to discuss the ongoing battle of fighting unconscious bias in AI. The answer? Diverse creators.

AI is being used at every point around us, whether you know it or not. From reading your resumé to approving your loan, AI is the backbone of how our society’s systems are developed and operate. So, while you might not be speaking directly to a digital assistant at your local coffee shop just yet, you can be assured that AI is impacting your life behind the scenes. How can we make sure it’s creating and maintaining a fair playing field for all?

Let’s turn to Finland. Obvi, the Nordic countries are always ahead of the curve. The Finnish government went so far as to design a free course in AI for its citizen called Elements of AI, designed by those with the motivation “to prove that AI should not be left in the hands of a few elite coders.The hands of a few elite coders. Does that give you spine-tingles? Because that’s how it’s working right now. Jana Eggers of Nara Logics urged that AI education is the key to diverse workforces: “If Finland can train their whole country, you can train your whole company.”

Gender diversity in technology — specifically AI — is lacking, which is a big problem when this technology is making automated decisions that impact the whole of society. When real decisions that impact real people are made by machines, making sure that the people who make the machines have the best of intentions is not enough. Ethical, anti-bias and fair AI systems require a diverse workforce of humans, and so the hope is that widespread education will open these doors to a more diverse workforce.

Alka Patel, who heads up AI Ethics Policy for the Department of Defense (DoD), expressed optimism for the future generations of AI literate, fluent and diverse creators: “I am optimistic because I’m seeing a lot of AI education though K-12.” Our kids will, in fact, be the all-knowing tech geniuses who we fear and respect today.

Mitigating bias in AI is a multifaceted challenge, and fortunately, UC Berkley shared a Playbook to set us all on the right track. Combating bias to unlock equality is a commitment that we’re incredibly passionate about (you can read our anti-racism accountability & commitments here).

“If I’m applying for a job, and that company is using AI to hire, then I want to know that. People should know where and when AI is being used.” — Alka Patel, Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre

Why Do We Fear Innovation?

“In order to manage any society, science is never enough. Science tells us the truth about the world, but the truth almost never unites people. To unite people, you need to tell them a story. And the story doesn’t have to be true at all.” — Yuval Noah Harari, Historian

From the point of view of a historian and a neuroscientist: if there’s one thing that humans have resisted both biologically and historically, it’s innovation. We don’t like it. We don’t like change. Through Yuval’s lens (“If you look at 99.9% of mutations, they’re bad for you.”) it makes complete sense.

When the whole world fell to the mercy of COVID-19, innovating to meet these new challenges became a non-negotiable. We were forced to adapt — but it would seem that there are limits to these adaptions.

“As humans, yes, we’re wired for adaptations and we’re wired for spontaneous mutations to occur, and for incredible evolution to occur… But as mammals, as primates, as Homo sapiens, I would argue that human touch, and human interaction of a non-technologically based variety, is I think, thankfully irreplaceable.” — Dr Mayim Bialik, Actress and Neuroscientist

“Just as AIDS didn’t kill sex, COVID-19 won’t kill hugging.” — Yuval Noah Harari, Historian

I’m sure we’re all looking forward to a future where we can reference Zoom with the same nostalgia as we do a fax machine, but until then, we’ll just have to make do. Yuval championed one of the most powerful mediums to mobilise communities towards new adaptions and innovative proposals: effective storytelling. “We’re storytelling animals. We think in stories.” Unpacking the fact that stories don’t have to be true to mobilise people on a great scale was confronting and hit close to home. Oh, aren’t we ever familiar with that concept?

The takeaway here, aside from appreciating the lens of neurobiology and a regular history lesson on the truth-bending atrocities of mankind, was in the persuasive influence of storytelling — especially when applied to innovation. Innovation and storytelling walk hand in hand. Humans think in stories, and as pioneers, we need to master that skill to bring others along for the journey toward our collective vision for a better future.

Looks like it’s time to scratch up on The Hero’s Journey.

That brings our 2021 SXSW to a close! There were a million and one other brilliant learnings that we’ve stashed away for a rainy day, so ask us out for coffee and we’ll happily share!

You can catch our bite-sized learnings over on Instagram, under our SXSW story highlights. Some of these SXSW sessions are still available on-demand, so check them out for yourself.

Rightio — that’s us, over and out. Stay weird, Austin.

JM’s Instagram SXSW highlights

Design is our language. Venture is our mindset. We are Josephmark.