The first five days or so of SXSW in Austin are always heavily weighted toward the interactive portion of the conference. The city’s downtown streets swell with lanyard-laden “entrepreneurs” and “founders” wearing that familiar uniform of T-shirts screen-printed with their company’s clever logo, an outfit made professional by throwing a blazer over the ensemble. They bounce from panel to panel and branded “house” to branded “house” (this year, on scooters, so many scooters) hawking their new apps and software products, each promising to be more revolutionary and life-changing and utterly necessary than the next. For years, the unspoken question at the conference seemed to be which company will become SXSW famous, like Persicope, Foursquare, or, most memorably, Twitter?
But this year, on the opening Friday of SXSW, Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren unleashed a manifesto titled “Here’s How We Can Break Up Big Tech,” and a new question burst onto the scene: What do you think of Warren’s proposal?
The Interactive keynote speakers—Instagram founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger and longtime VC Roger McNamee (interviewed by WIRED editor in chief Nicholas Thompson)—were asked to address it. Systrom quipped that he wondered if he and Krieger would “get our jobs back,” though he ultimately outlined why he didn’t think Warren’s proposal actually fixed the problems with Big Tech. McNamee called it “brilliant”—and admitted he counseled Warren on the subject.
Then Warren herself showed up, Big Tech’s newest Big Enemy, in the flesh and ready to spar with the techno-utopians.
"You had a pretty big announcement about tech,” said Anand Giridharadas, who interviewed her Saturday at one of the Texas Tribune’s Conversations About America’s Future, co-produced with SXSW. “And then like the gangster you are, [you] flew down to a tech conference."
"Ain't afraid of no one,” she responded.
Warren then made jokes about invasion of privacy, lambasted platforms for driving competitors “out of business” using Big Data, and doubled down on her proclamation to break up Google, Amazon, and Facebook.
She articulated to a national audience the whispered question Silicon Valley feared would eventually find a megaphone: Has Big Tech gotten too big? Antitrust has been in the air, and everyone seems now to be an expert on the Sherman Act. It doesn’t hurt that the antitrust discussion seems to dovetail nicely with an adjacent fear: Has Big Tech invaded my privacy?
The company with the biggest target on its back when it comes to privacy is arguably Facebook. So there’s a karmic circularity to the questions about Big Tech’s role in our lives arriving roughly on the anniversary of Cambridge Analytica’s emergence as a household phrase and a sort of shorthand for how Facebook collects and uses our personal data. And it can’t just be coincidence that Facebook further enmeshed itself in the discussion by actively engaging the privacy conversation. Just two days before SXSW, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has been dipping and dodging for the past year, published “a privacy-focused vision” for his company, promising enhanced encryption, as well as interoperability among his three messaging platforms: Facebook Messenger, Instagram Direct, and WhatsApp. To some observers, it seemed the integration of these services was a move to get ahead of splitting the companies in the way Warren proposes.
But here’s the thing: While it’s good to be questioning Big Tech, especially at a tech conference, it’s worth noting that the scrutiny precedes Warren’s splashy treatise. In years past, SXSW panels were devoted to harnessing the power of hashtags and the future of wearables. There was still some of that, but the program included more than a dozen dozen planned panels related to privacy, from “Are There Civil Rights in a Tech World?” to “Ethics and Responsibility in the AI and IoT Age.” There was even one called “User Privacy in a Post Cambridge Analytica World.”
There’s no doubt society needs to collectively confront the many, many issues that have cropped up with Google, Amazon, and Facebook, and learn from past mistakes. But future-facing technologists see a new technology in its nascent stage, moving fast with the frightening potential to break many things: artificial intelligence. Panelists had Big Questions about Big Data, a subset of Big Tech, and how to properly collect it and harness it for good. The new provocation seems to be: If AI will be part of everything from personal voice assistants to war-capable drones, how do we ethically create and deploy this transformational technology? At least half a dozen panels grappled with some version of this conundrum, like “The Future of Ethical Combat With Futures Command” and “Ethics and AI: How to Plan for the Unpredictable.” Even Garry Kasparov, the chess champion who lost a match to IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997, was on a panel titled “Ethics and Responsibility in the AI and IoT Age.”
Ultimately, there was a perceptible shift at SXSW: Less desire to be “the next Twitter” that’s a commercial success, and more hard conversations about what it means to be a societal one.