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SXSW 2024 Explores the Impacts of Technology, Not Just Its Possibilities

South by Southwest (SXSW) 2024 wrapped up recently in Austin, TX. Traditionally known for its unbridled enthusiasm for the cutting-edge, this year’s SXSW took a reflective turn, delving deep into the impacts of technology, not just its possibilities.

The conference opened on International Women’s Day, and in addition to events in recognition and celebration, the topic of tech’s impact on the past and future of women and other marginalized communities permeated the week.

Historically, the adverse externalities of technological advancements were felt acutely by a few, often those in marginalized communities. However, the current climate of universal uncertainty and apprehension concerning what artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will mean for our lives finally brought considerations of technology’s impacts and risks to the fore.

We’ve captured the best of the advice and lessons learned shared by the inspiring and thought-provoking speakers on the front lines of these conversations.

Takeaways from SXSW24 for nonprofit and government leaders

  • If you’re overwhelmed by the pace of change, you’re not alone. 
  • Don’t make the mistake of letting uncertainty shorten how far into the future you’re planning. In an era of rapid transformation, it’s crucial to take a long-term and proactive approach rather than a short-term and reactive approach to planning and decision-making.
  • It’s necessary to plan for a range of scenarios. Consider how quickly AI might revolutionize the ways your organization works and in what ways.
  • Transparency, trust, and engagement are more important than ever as organizations navigate the complexities of the digital age. To build these, we must think beyond immediate trends and focus on the core values and needs of the communities we serve.
  • Large language models are probability machines, and ultimately, we get to decide whether we have a Hunger Games or a Star Trek future.
  • People are looking for optimism. While fear may be the fastest way to move people to action, you can’t use it repeatedly, and it doesn’t build long-term trust and relationships.

Whose work can mission-driven leaders take inspiration from?

Like never before, mission-driven organizations attended SXSW 2024, leading sessions and facilitating vital conversations. If you weren’t able to attend, here are five thought-provoking, must-watch sessions:

  • Jeanette Epps and Loral O’Hara, NASA astronauts on the International Space Station, took live questions from conference attendees. (YouTube)
  • Kelley Robinson, President of the Human Rights Campaign, explored the responsibility of brands and the media to not perpetuate misinformation and discrimination via a panel that included Dylan Mulvaney titled “When Beer Goes Viral: The Role of Brands and Media in Fighting Hate.” (YouTube)
  • The Archewell Foundation and The 19th, a nonprofit independent news organization based in Austin, hosted a keynote featuring Meghan Markle, Katie Couric, and Brooke Shields, which explored women’s representation in media and entertainment. (YouTube
  • At the launch of the Future Today Institute’s 2024 Emerging Tech Trend Report, futurist Amy Webb demonstrated AI’s gender bias by showing that in 2023, AI image-generating services only generated white men when asked for a “CEO of a large company.” Despite numerous proclamations of progress on AI bias, a year later, Midjourney, Anthropic, and OpenAI’s DALL-E persisted in only generating images of white men when given that prompt. (YouTube)
  • Jack Conte, the CEO of Patreon, explored the history and future of online communities. The internet started as a platform that democratized creative distribution. But with the rise of algorithms, platforms began to show people what would keep them on the platform rather than who they subscribed to, forcing creators to produce content for the algorithms rather than their followers. (YouTube)

A reminder our future is not predestined by algorithms but shaped by our choices

For me, SXSW 2024 showcased a crucial evolution in our discourse on technology: the imperative to balance its boundless possibilities with a deep exploration of its impacts. The insights and lessons shared by mission-focused leaders serve as a collective call to action for leaders in the nonprofit and government sectors to embrace the rapid pace of technological change with a forward-looking, proactive strategy that focuses on long-term vision over short-term reactiveness. By doing so, they can ensure that their organizations are not only responsive to the present but also resilient and relevant in the future.

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