‘I’m angry’: One communications exec at SXSW says this year’s festival is all about describing scary risks — without offering solutions

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  • Chrissie Hanson is the chief strategy officer at OMD Worldwide, and in this op-ed she says that the first two days at this year’s SXSW have left her disheartened and angry.
  • Why? Scenarios of impending catastrophe are being described – without anyone offering any solutions or even ownership of the problems.
  • Consumers shouldn’t have to be the first line of defence against modern safety issues; the collaboration of Silicon Valley, private companies, governments, regulators, and citizens is required.

At the end of the first two days of SXSW, it’s clear that 2019 will be noted as the year that Austin attempted to get real about the risks and rewards of a connected world – and then dodged the issue like a presidential candidate talking about immigration.

Which is why, at the end of my first few days on the ground, I’m missing the sense of exhilaration that defined my previous three trips to South-by, when I couldn’t wait to connect with friends and colleagues to share what I had seen, heard, experienced and learned each day. Instead, this year I’m concerned. I’m angry. And I’m seeing a challenging road ahead for marketers who’ve been promised a world of opportunity but who may find themselves bearing the blame for financing the opening of the tech version of Pandora’s box.

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I’m concerned by the multiple scenarios of impending catastrophe that unfolded across the sessions that I attended. Not because they were unexpected or unknown – it’s not exactly news that autonomous vehicles have incumbent safety risks, or that a weak link in your connected home can have tragic consequences. What’s troubling is the way in which these warnings were delivered – almost as if they are the disclaimers delivered at the end of a commercial from a used car dealer. Translation: A lot could go wrong, but it’s all on you.

Take the AV session as an example – a lot of waxing rhapsodic about the Passenger Economy (side query: is anyone keeping track of all of these niche economies? We must be up to about a dozen by now). We were told how AVs have the potential to become rolling arcades for avid gamers, or rolling 4DX theatres for entertainment enthusiasts, and that the Passenger Economy will open the door to myriad services. And while there was discussion about the negative impacts on traffic and safety, there were no solutions offered, no sense of urgency about resolving the concerns before going to market, and most importantly, no one taking ownership of the problem or a solution.

Chrissie HansonCourtesy of Chrissie HansonChrissie Hanson.

I felt angry after sitting in the AI & Disinformation meeting in which the message was that unless government and regulators force private companies to put far more resources into reducing disinformation, Silicon Valley will do the bare minimum. Yes, the fight against disinformation requires the collaboration of Silicon Valley, private companies, governments and regulators, as well as citizens; and yes, we need to be more vigilant in protecting our children and ourselves from misinformation, to be better guardians of own data. But consumers shouldn’t have to be the first line of defence.

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Absent any seismic shift in Silicon Valley’s hands-off approach, the situation translates to more responsibility for marketers (brands and agencies alike). We have an added responsibility to consider where, how, and what we’re putting into the media sphere – not only specific to the traditional concerns of how we are actively shaping the opinions of those around us, but also because we are playing in spaces that have not been secured – and whose owners appear to be passing the buck on the issue of safety. As clients looks to their agencies to guide their entry into the AV, AI and IoT era, are we ready to take on added responsibilities? Are we ready to make the hard choices and engage in important actions such as eradicating fraud, increasing media transparency, and improving the user experience to deliver better business outcomes?

So yes, I’m concerned. I’m angry. But I’m also ready.

Chrissie Hanson is the chief strategy officer at OMD Worldwide.

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