Trump Looms Large Over This Year's South by Southwest Gathering

  • Two days of panels to focus on adminstration’s effect on tech
  • Different vibe from 2016 when Barack Obama was big attraction

Why Obama Made SXSW A Priority

Donald Trump won’t be attending this year’s South by Southwest conference, which started Friday in Austin, Texas. But the president will be very much in evidence -- if only in spirit -- at the annual gathering of technologists, musicians and wannabe entrepreneurs.

After the election, event organizers added panels reflecting a new political era many had believed impossible. The technology industry, much of which opposes the administration’s stances on immigration and social issues, has been allotted two full days of Trump-related sessions. Among them: “The Future of H-1B,” “Our Bright, Jobless Future: Trump Policy vs. Artificial intelligence,” and “Startup Investing During Trump Years.” 

The vibe of this year’s conference is markedly different from 2016. South by Southwest and the tech industry had a warm relationship with the previous administration. Barack Obama and wife Michelle Obama were keynote speakers last year, marking the first time in SXSW’s 31-year history that a sitting president and first lady participated. In October, Obama even invited a bunch of technologists to his White House backyard for a SXSW homage called “South by South Lawn: a White House Festival of Ideas, Art and Action.”

“We had a president in office for eight years who was pretty tech-friendly, and the community pretty much understood what his policies were to technology and innovation,” said Hugh Forrest, SXSW’s chief programming officer. “Given the new administration and all the changes, there are a lot of questions about what does this mean for the technology industry.”

‘Dangerous Reality’

Last year, Obama opened the tech portion of the conference with a speech on how technology can help modernize government. This year, Senator Cory Booker did the honors. The New Jersey Democrat gave a highly political speech that alluded to the “darker strains of our history” and warned that technology can create “bubbles” of like-minded partisans talking past each other. “Not seeing each other creates a very dangerous reality,” Booker said to a mostly receptive audience. Afterward, Booker continued those themes in a Q&A with Malika Saada Saar, Google’s senior counsel on civil and human rights. Technology barely figured in the conversation.

South by Southwest is officially apolitical, but Austin is a liberal town, so the conference has long had a progressive feel. Over the years, activists have used SXSW to make a point. In 2015, people brandishing placards with such slogans as “Stop the Robots” and “Humans are the future” protested the encroachment of artificial intelligence.

Planned Parenthood

This year, Tumblr, the blogging website being sold to Verizon Communications Inc., is hosting a rally for the women’s health care provider Planned Parenthood, which the Trump administration is attempting to defund because it provides abortions. At one panel, at Box Inc.’s Austin offices, men and women cheered during a discussion focused on the adverse impact of a loss of funding for Planned Parenthood, and the technology industry’s duty to put more resources toward human rights issues rather than, say, creating another food delivery company.

Still, as always, attendees will be there mostly to discover and promote new ideas. Former Vice President Joe Biden will be on hand to talk about the Biden Cancer Initiative and the progress made under the White House Cancer Moonshot, an effort to accelerate research. Tech-focused panels on autonomous driving, artificial intelligence and virtual reality are expected to draw large crowds.

Billionaire Mark Cuban, who’s been attending SXSW since its 1987 inception, considers the event a “spring break for Silicon Valley” where he can meet a bunch of industry people in one place. Cuban will be speaking on a panel about how startups -- including Uber and Airbnb -- have worked with and against regulators, and what their biggest hurdles will be. Cuban, a Hillary Clinton surrogate in 2016 who’s sparred with the president on Twitter, says the Trump team shows few signs it understands technology. “I don’t see any way that the administration has a positive impact on tech,” he said in an email.

Essential Brainstorming

Vikrum Aiyer, a former Obama innovation policy adviser, is attending for the first time because he says it’s crucial to brainstorm ways of succeeding in a political environment that could be hostile to the tech industry. He’ll be speaking on a panel that will discuss the potential implications of Trump’s immigration policies and practical ways techies can cope. Aiyer plans to take what he learns back to friends in Washington.

“We owe it not only to have a discussion about what we might hate about those proposals, but also have a productive conversation,” Aiyer said. “The more you have conversations with the impacted businesses and what levers they can pull in government, the better the tech community can resonate in D.C.”

Clark Jennings, a former policy adviser for the Obama administration who was part of the entourage that traveled with Obama to SXSW last year, said any company that doesn’t think that developing policies will affect them are in for a rude awakening. “If they aren’t debating these ideas, it could sneak up and surprise them,” he said.

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