SXSW 2017: Connecting The Great Disconnect

By Andrea Conant

Most conferences you go to and can’t wait until it is over so you can go to the bar. Not this one. The fun part of South by Southwest is actually going to the sessions. You are in awe and overcome with a sense of euphoria over the fact that there are so many people across the country who care like you, are dejected like you, optimistic like you, cynical like you, energized like you, yet still hungover like you. Every person is a friend, a citizen, a member of a global community. And you think, finally, this is the connectedness that we all keep talking about.

It never fails but South by is always spot on, always just in time, so clutch. That is because they have designed the experience to transpire in such a way that it is what you make of it. Now as a four-year veteran, I do have a bit of an advantage. I have completely shed the skin of what I think a conference is supposed to be and what I am supposed to get out of my professional experiences.

South by teaches you patience, planning, discovery, presence, humanity and promise.

This year was truly electric. My personal theme for this year is, and has been since Election Day, that out of pressure comes diamonds. I really believe that the greatest art, expedition and enterprise has come out of moments when our society was under extraordinary pressure. It must be some kind of natural law.

It is no coincidence that in almost every casual discussion and in every session I went to people spoke about the curse and the blessing of technology. Whether it is:

Giving everyone a platform. We forgot that when media platforms were democratized that platform was given to the good guys and the bad guys who were all empowered by validation.

The need to speak to the gut instead of the head. If red states are Mars then blue states are Venus. You can talk facts and figures all you want but if what you say has no soul, no rule of thumb intrinsic quality to it then your message will remain in limbo, lost in translation.

The world is shrinking so the sense of gentrification is at a code red. I started to make a test out of how long I could go without telling people what I do when a subject so directly relevant to my work in community engagement came up. I would ask people where they were from and once they told me I asked what’s it like there and they immediately told me about how it is changing, how they are worried about whether they can keep up with it and whether that change will still include them as part of it.

Converge or die. Remember evolve or die? Well converge or die is its cool little sister and it won’t be ignored. With all of this connectedness we must look at interdisciplinary ways by which we can solve problems. Siloing is so 2000 and late. It affects our ability to cure disease, connect our infrastructure, heal our planet and take full advantage of our humanity. It is a big f*n waste of time and I am done with it. Be warned that I have little patience for those who will not collaborate or at least be willing to learn how. It causes needless suffering in the world and as the meme goes, ain’t nobody got time for that.

Everyone is an expert at something. I met many people who are deeply passionate and knowledgeable about something really specific and nuanced. Highly educated. And I am talking about people across the board from poor, working class, to the 1%. Because they are all at South by.

The pendulum is swinging on digital. People are starting to fear it (again) and the unintended consequences of being sooooo connected that it is actually more like a gigantic disconnect. I mean, I am on my Delta flight writing this and the only reason I am is because the Wi-Fi doesn’t work and the guy next to me is doodling some art freehand (with an actual pencil), so who knows what we are capable of when we unplug.

(Shout out to Delta for not having Wi-Fi on a flight from the world’s largest technology conference, but we forgive you because we unplugged.)

The new establishment is tech and now people are intrinsically questioning it like “What have you done?!”. And as Baratunde Thurston coined, just because you are software engineers, that doesn’t mean you should be social engineers.

So what does that leave us with? A ton of questions that I am excited to get the answers to. A ton of people I am looking forward to collaborating with, like you.

It is why we at Consensus are embarking on building a community around what we call Next-Gen Consensus. If you are down with the cause of collaborating more, starting something new, being generous with your insight and cross-pollinating ideas to create a better future, we want you to sign up to join the Next-Gen Consensus community.

What does that look like? Maybe it is a meet up with people nearby who share this intent. Maybe it is getting news and content that will help you make small changes in making your neighborhood a place where consensus is once again achievable. At its most basic level it is a community that you can help build to create a spirit of consensus for the future. We look forward to working on this exciting new endeavor from the ground up with you.

Andrea Conant, a Vice President at Consensus, has been participating in the SXSW community since 2012. Based in the Los Angeles area, Consensus is an award-winning public relations, public affairs and community engagement firm distinguished by our innovative communications programs.

SXSW 2017: Connecting The Great Disconnect was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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