The End of the Filter Bubbles?

At SXSW a year ago, President Obama spoke and enthusiastically livened up the tech scene. A similar appearance of President Trump at SXSW 2017 would hardly be imaginable.

Notes from SXSW 2017

How much has the country changed in the last 12 months? At SXSW a year ago, President Obama spoke and enthusiastically livened up the tech scene. A similar appearance of President Trump at SXSW 2017 would hardly be imaginable. In Travis County, to which Austin belongs, Hillary Clinton brought 65.8 percent of the votes in the presidential election of 2016. Trump was far behind, but won Texas and, of course, the presidency.

First impression: Austin is still the cool, cool university town that we know and love. The Immigration Officer at the airport is friendly and relaxed, the ridesharing service driver, and the staff at Whole Foods are delighted to see SXSW guests flocking in and spending their money. At first sight, there’s no trace of Austin being in a lesser mood.

South of the Austin Convention Center, in Rainey Street with its picturesque wooden houses, the wrecking ball has been busy over the past twelve months. Sadly, some of the old local pubs and bars were demolished to make way for large new buildings. If it continues at this rate, nothing will be left of it in just a few years.

The German House, very visible last year, has already been moved northwards to the Barracuda on East 7th Street. Rainey Street was once an area with a dubious reputation for drugs and guns. But today criminality has disappeared, and in its place is an eclectic assortment of chic bars.

As in 2016 with Obama, SXSW has this year also started politically. And the drastic change in atmosphere was palpable. Democratic senator Cory Booker, in his moving opening speech, pleaded that love should be the force of cohesion in today’s deeply divided US society. Tolerance is not enough, on the contrary – it creates new boundaries instead of unification. What a contrast to Hillary Clinton’s statement in which she said half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables”.

Cory Booker

Organisers of the SXSW this year set themselves the task of explaining to an insecure tech scene how it could happen that Donald Trump was elected as the 45th President of the USA. Cory Booker was obviously concerned about reconciliation rather than division and, at the conclusion of the first conference day, CNN journalist Van Jones (The Messy Truth) delivered a brilliant and clever analysis of the political situation.

He also identified himself as a Liberal, but at the same time made it clear that the a key value of the Liberals in the USA is justice and not freedom, which in turn is a key value of the conservatives. It’s almost a cliché say that society needs both freedom and justice, but it is an important insight in the political climate of 2017, and as such is worthy of being discussed at one of the world’s biggest tech events.

The technically induced filter bubbles, in which followers of respective world views move, are now clearly recognised as a problem. Obviously, a shocking event such as the election of Donald Trump was needed to grow the realisation that – beyond their own filter bubble – people live whose values, concerns and needs cannot simply be ignored or dismissed as irrelevant. In a democracy, one may have a different opinion. Where all must agree, there is dictatorship.

“Nothing is gonna change unless I do,” Cory Booker exclaimed. And, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” He took a long look at the history of the United States, quoted Martin Luther King, and reminded the audience of Abraham Lincoln. Europeans are probably thinking how much the country is trying reassure itself. Like Cory Booker, Van Jones reminded us that, throughout American history and in recent pre-Trump days, things were never perfect. Van Jones, himself a 9th generation American, said he was the first in his family to be born with full civil rights.

Van Jones

It says a lot about the upheaval of our Western democracies that so many of these insights are currently being discussed. Reflecting this, it was natural that politics should figure so prominently on the SXSW agenda. This year, it was mainly Democrats and closely related speakers such as Van Jones on stage in Texas, together with former vice president Joe Biden who spoke on Sunday.

Will we see Republicans on stage in 2018? This remains to be seen.

Originally published in German here.