Everyone knows that Austin is atypical of much of Texas. It didn’t come by the moniker “Keep Austin Weird” by accident. As comedian Chris Hardwick put it, Austin is a gated community where all of the vegan techie hipsters live, while the rest of Texas wears mustaches unironically. So to say that Austin and the SXSW crowd feel a bit socially and politically dislocated under the New Administration is an understatement. Because of the context where the festival finds itself this year, Day One of SXSW Interactive 2017 took on a diagnostic tone, examining the current social and political context.
According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, an international survey the Edelman PR firm has been conducting since 2000, social trust is on the decline. The Edelman survey measures trust across four different cultural segments – business, government, NGOs and media – in 28 industrialized nations. For the first time in the 17 year history of the survey, the data reflects a general decline in trust across all populations. More interestingly, the results also reveal a split between the college-educated and informed 15% among these populations and the remaining 85%. The 15% still reflected much more confidence in these entities than the mass population. This data helps makes sense of the populist “revolutions” we are seeing internationally through the lenses of Brexit, the conflicts in Germany, the upcoming elections in France, and our own election of an “unPresident.”
Dan Rather headlined a panel of technology insiders, including a tech futurist, a social tech VC rep, and the CEO of HomeAway, who reflected on these findings during an Edelman-hosted session. Rather noted the lack of social trust in media, at least in the U.S., extending from the proliferation of corporatized news platforms that have resulted in echo chambers are eroding public discourse. From a tech perspective, the panelists noted the disruptive power and speed of innovation that has continued for over a decade, outpacing the ability of schools, industries and, most importantly, communities to adapt. The best way to regain social trust is for leaders in each of these areas to reconnect with the 85% with authenticity and truth. For media, this means a recommitment to seeking out the truth in service of the public good and not the bottom line. In tech, this means leaders in Silicon Valley explaining the social value of innovations in a way that brings the 85% along.
In his keynote address, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker drew upon the closing words penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of independence to re-establish a social/political vision for a divided and distrustful America: “…we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Such a vision calls us to step out of our geographic and political bubbles and evacuate our social media echo chambers that fuel our current divisions. Unless “we the people” embrace this more engaged, collective social vision, Booker contended, we will be unable to adequately address the challenges we face in the future. His call to the SXSW audience and beyond is to “love on another.”
Booker’s address dovetailed well with a riveting afternoon presentation by National Geographic photographer and explorer Cory Richards. Richards wove a tale of the ups and downs of his life through a variety of photographic assignments that sent he and his teams into the midst of ecological and political tension points around the globe. Through his journeys and the conflicts he explored, he came away with an understanding that all things are connected into a cosmic ecosystem. Our world thrives, he suggests, when we acknowledge this native, shared connection and then work together to solve the genuine ecological, political and social challenges we face on a global scale. Echoing Booker and resonating with the call to authenticity to re-etablish trust, Richards encouraged the enwrapped SXSW crowd to learn from our collective experience historically and in the present so that we no longer perpetuate the cultural and ecological divisiveness that is currently wreaking havoc on the world.
Even in a session on health and technology the current context presents significant challenges. A panel session featuring health educators from the U.S. and Canada laid bare the struggle to collect the right data in a timely way to help government systems be proactive in response to significant health challenges for its people. The disparity between self-reporting data on surveys, information from health centers and hospitals, and health data coming from a growing number of industry and consumer devices makes the data extremely difficult to collect and harmonize in a way that is meaningful for government action. The machinations of standard governance only make these data interactions even more difficult – if not impossible. There is no question that the available data, if it could be properly curated and presented, would make a positive impact on social health. But without key technology partnerships (connectedness), data sharing agreements (love) and consistency in the data provided (truth), the potential social health benefits remain only potential.
The diagnosis is clear and apparent, the world in 2017 finds itself at an interesting crossroads. The easiest solution, but not the best, is an multi-national retreat into nationalistic silos or a continued pull back from one another into our social echo chambers. These solutions will only ramp up tensions that will continue to keep us divided. Leaning into loving one another, understanding our connectedness, reinvesting in trust, and seeking the truth together are the only constructive and productive ways forward.