The abundance of personal data being swapped electronically (digitized medical records, the NSA leak, the Target credit card breach, etc) have people (rightfully) frightened about the safety of their private data online. In response to this growing international concern, the organizers at SXSW, shall we say, secured keynote speakers like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to talk about the politics and ethics of personal privacy. And while that appeared to be the overarching theme of Interactive this year, SXSWi stayed true to its roots of fostering the incubation of new ideas and development, and invited other keynotes, like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chelsea Clinton, to speak to the importance of continued curiosity to seek out the unknown unknowns, and how innovators can responsibly evolve technology.
SXSWi has grown in size and reputation (more than 40,000 registered attendees this year and nearly every national news outlet reported on the festival) giving organizers enough cache to land big celebrities to issue the half-dozen keynote speeches over the five-day Interactive portion of the festival. And, as with most things, some delivered and some disappointed. In a year that featured huge gets like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, it became clear that being famous on the national stage doesn’t always translate into the ability to captivate a large, and largely distractable, audience. Below, read a few reactions from four of the most anticipated speakers for 2014’s SXSW Interactive keynote speakers to find out who made the biggest impressions:
Julian Assange: Foiled by Technology
Julian Assange rarely speaks to the press so getting an interview with him was huge news for the festival. Thousands filled the exhibition room at the Austin Convention Center to hear Assange, who connected via Skype from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, and thousands more tuned in to the livestream offered by the Texas Tribune. Assange’s conversation, unsurprisingly, focused on government surveillance and the obligation of people to use technology to help expose injustice and corruption. He stressed the dangers of reporting on national security, calling journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Jacob Appelbaum “a new kind of refugee,” but Assange’s message wasn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking, and it had a sort of preaching-to-the-choir quality. It was also garbled—literally—starting with an unanswered first call. When the connection finally was secured, the conversation labored along through muddy reception and a confusing few moments when the in-person moderator at SXSW kept talking over the Skype moderator. Overall, it was unfortunate that technological fits disrupted a rare conversation with one of the more controversial and polarizing figures in news.
Edward Snowden: Left Us Wanting More Intel
Like Assange, Snowden was a big get for SXSW. The backdrop for Snowden, who was also teleconferenced in, was a huge U.S. Constitution, a not-so-subtle nod to First Amendment rights. The infamous NSA leak answered questions from the two ACLU activists chosen to moderate the conversation, questions that some criticized as “softballs.” At one point, Snowden directly addressed the audience, which he must have figured was sympathetic to his situation, telling them that the NSA was setting fire to the Internet, and that “The people that are in the room now, you guys are all the firefighters.” It’s the first public conversation Snowden has had, and, limiting his discussion primarily to technology, he barely addressed the fact that much of the nation still doesn’t agree with his actions, that the NSA revelations may have compromised national security, and that he’s considered a traitor by leaders in his country. The conversation occasionally dipped into technical jargon, possibly isolating attendees and livestream viewers who might have been hoping Snowden would talk more directly about his life in exile and if he’ll ever be welcome back to the U.S. And, as Erin Griffin at Fortune pointed out, the broader themes of his talk were somewhat contradictory to the purpose of the festival, which hosted dozens of panels instructing companies on how to use personal data gathered online to target their brands to consumers.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: the Brightest Star
Tyson, who was promoting the recent premiere of his reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, proved once again that he is the world’s coolest astrophysicist. Who else could talk about space and physics for more than an hour and keep a 5,000-seat auditorium full (he also won the Interactive festival’s “Speaker of the Event” award). Tyson’s hallmark is his ability to make complicated scientific principles accessible to the lay person, which he does by explaining things with a heavy dose of metaphors and anecdotes. In one of the more charming moments of the talk, Tyson expanded on the importance of maintaining our sense of child-like curiosity by telling the story of how his daughter deduced that there was no tooth fairy. Being a good father, Tyson didn’t want to lie to his daughter, but he also didn’t want to deprive her of the tooth fairy, a pretty quintessential childhood experience. When she lost her first tooth, his workaround was to tell her that he had “heard there was a tooth fairy” who left money under your pillow at night. That night, she left her tooth under the pillow, and Tyson and his wife left money under the pillow. As she continued to lose teeth, Tyson’s daughter tried to “catch” the tooth fairy, but her tricks never worked. She kept questioning the existence of the tooth fairy and with no satisfactory answers from her parents or visual evidence to prove that the tooth fairy was real, Tyson’s daughter convinced a friend who had lost a tooth to NOT tell her parents about it. When no tooth fairy arrived, they knew the fairy wasn’t real. He continued giving parenting advice, telling the audience to let their kids “break things,” and consider the cost of broken items part of an education budget. Fingers crossed that there are more parenting tips featured in Cosmos.
Chelsea Clinton: Born to Run
Chelsea Clinton talked to a mostly-full auditorium about the growing trend of using technology in developing worlds, a mission of the Clinton Foundation, for which she is a vice chair. Clinton’s well-rehearsed, scripted remarks, which lasted around 25 minutes, took on the tone of a college lecture, complete with a Powerpoint presentation. Clearly in command of a microphone, there were glimmers of the influence from both of her parents (and she later addressed the questions about whether she’d find herself in politics: maybe). The audience, which might have shown up only to be in close proximity to a Clinton, appeared to grow bored with the spoonful of well-meaning medicine and started streaming out pretty early in the talk. For those who stayed, Clinton doled out some informative nuggets, like the enormous success of the American Red Cross’s 90999 text campaign (donate $10 with a simple SMS text). But the most engaging part of the keynote came from the candid Q&A session when Clinton admitted she “loved talking about diarrhea” (she did not mean in the potty-humor sense, but rather, drawing attention to the epidemic of children dying from dehydration due to chronic diarrhea); she taught her parents to text; and her parents first made her engage in debates when she was six years old (one parent acted as moderator and one as the opposition side). But if she does ever make it on to a national campaign trail, she’ll have to become more familiar with the assemblage of a breakfast taco before visiting Texas again. When asked what three ingredients she prefers for her morning taco, she said eggs, jalapenos, and peppers (isn’t that technically two ingredients?).