On Jan. 29, a Sunday night, South by Southwest issued a statement about President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, specifically a controversial executive order limiting travel put into effect two days earlier.
“SXSW is alarmed by the Trump administration’s decision to ban citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S.,” the statement began. “We stand against discriminatory laws and unequivocally support civil rights for all persons everywhere. Participation by speakers, artists, and filmmakers from around the world is crucial to the creative mix of ideas that makes our event meaningful.”
The statement wasn’t just a philosophical disagreement based on SXSW’s long-standing push for diversity and inclusiveness at its events. It was practical: attendees and speakers for the conference — which runs March 10-19 and sprawls across areas from technology to music to style to film and sports — could have been directly impacted had the so-called “travel ban” not been blocked by the judiciary.
Hugh Forrest, the conference’s head of programming, said that while the executive order hasn’t yet had a huge impact on the event, it created a potential disruption that had to be addressed.
“We are certainly very concerned about the travel ban,” Forrest said. “It’s changing so much that it is hard to know where this will stand in 30 days.” One SXSW Music performer, King Raam, pulled out of performing this year and it’s unclear if other attendees or performers will opt out, something Forrest said SXSW will address on a case-by-case basis.
The executive order, which also drew protests and statements from many tech companies, was unusual for SXSW in that it typically doesn’t make direct political statements. SXSW more characteristically chooses to let its panels and performances speak for themselves; it has in the past booked high-profile political thinkers from Vice President Al Gore to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul to its 1992 keynote speaker Texas Gov. Ann Richards. That trend culminated with an opening keynote featuring President Barack Obama last March, the first time a sitting president attended SXSW.
Over the last few years, there’s been an increase in content related to policy, government and activism. The conference itself has also become more open about where its political leanings lie, championing diversity efforts in its events, promoting progressive causes and social good as a major theme of SXSW Interactive, and at times taking a stand publicly on issues such as the immigration order.
One week after SXSW’s immigration statement, the conference announced Texas Competes managing director Jessica Shortall as a keynote speaker, seemingly a direct response to the Texas legislature’s current push on a transgender bathroom bill.
“We feel very strongly on the bathroom bill,” Forrest said in announcing Shortall, an activist who’s expected to speak on the topic on March 12. “We are against discrimination in any form. Period, exclamation point.”
In addition to a roster of politicians, public-policy experts and advocates for local government action speaking at SXSW this year, there will be two days of panels specifically about how a Trump presidency will impact technology, a track called “Tech Under Trump.”
SXSW’s political roots
Though it has grown to a gigantic, seven-day event with more than a thousand panels every year and 37,660 participants in 2016, the tech-focused leg of SXSW called Interactive has always had some undercurrent of politics and activism at its heart, even when it featured fewer than 100 panels.
Longtime attendees who were at SXSW in the late 1990s remember how the politics of some early participants were outside the mainstream and open to the wild possibilities the growing World Wide Web offered.
“There were definitely techno-Libertarian, freewheeling elements in that period in Austin,” said Paco Nathan, a technology expert who now works for O’Reilly Media and who helped arrange panels and speakers from around 1996-2002.
“There was a controversial (panel) called ‘Hacktivism’ which featured people taking proactive means online for political protest, much of which is probably now relatively illegal,” Nathan said. “It resonated with the audience at the time.”
Nathan jokes that the mix of “Intellectuals, tinfoil hats and gutterpunks engaging in discourse” included science-fiction authors, artists and online freedom advocates and eventually attracted individuals such as alt-right celebrity Alex Jones.
“So I’d say that scene started out relatively left-ish and anarcho, then gradually shifted toward more of the right-ring conspiracy folks showing up,” Nathan said. “People showing up from other parts of Texas were decidedly more Libertarian... until they hung around Austin a while.”
Brooks Coleman, an artist and musician who works in robotics and clothing, said a lot of the activism at SXSW happening in the early days focused around specific causes, such as helping shelters for battered women or the “Max for Mayor” movement to elect environmentalist Max Nofziger.
“Back then, the tech bubble was still growing and had not popped yet, so a lot more of the day-job techies were willing to invest in art projects,” he said.
Coleman says he’s working on an idea for a virtual world of old Austin that would re-create the city’s old clubs and recapture “that awesome special night that you just can’t explain in words to the kids these days.”
Doug Lenat, a frequent speaker at SXSW over the years who now runs a company called Cycorp, said that the current debate over the ethics of artificial intelligence mirror the discussions that have always taken place at the event.
“There has always been a steady undercurrent of the responsible, social use of technology, ever since the beginning of SXSW, which is continuing this year,” Lenat said.
He said he’s not certain that all the hallway chatter about politics will amount to much when it comes to real technology innovation.
Lenat said, “The gadgets, technologies and innovative ideas are probably more influenced by the last 12 months’ science fiction movies than by the last 12 months’ news.”
The current climate
As the focus of SXSW broadened, the amount of programming increased and buzz spread, particularly form 2007 to 2012, its attendance spiked and the makeup of the crowds changed.
In more recent years, attendees such as Matt Weinberg have found value in attending. Weinberg, a former Obama appointee in the U.S. Small Business Administration, served as senior adviser in the Office of Investment and Innovation and came to SXSW the last two years to spread the word about investment funding the government has available for investment firms and startups.
He said most attendees he encountered had no idea these funds were available and that the government was making such efforts to help the startup community.
He’s not sure, though, that all of SXSW aligns with the values the Obama administration was putting forth for growth and innovation of tech. He was impressed by the number of mayors and cabinet secretaries there and the interest in civic tech.
“Individual people discussing ways to promote equity or inclusion, discussing ways to democratize the success and wealth of the tech sector, those are genuine,” Weinberg said. “But you look around SXSW, you see the parties that are being held, the egregious displays of wealth, a big rock band in a small venue. As a business development play, it makes a lot of sense, but I can’t say in total SXSW values mirror the Obama administration.”
While some of the more high-profile political or political-adjacent speakers over the years have leaned toward the left, such as Senator Al Franken and keynote speaker Chelsea Clinton, the last two years of SXSW drew about an even number of Republican and Democratic U.S. senators and representatives.
It seems obvious, though, that SXSW had its fans in the Obama administration.
In addition to booking the president and First Lady Michelle Obama to speak in 2016, SXSW also worked with the administration on a South by South Lawn in October and some of the participants in that event also attended the Obamas’ last White House Christmas party.
“It doesn’t seem like a secret that SXSW had a good relationship with the Obama administration,” Forrest said, “and that the outlook for a relationship with the Trump administration seems much more hazy.”
Will Trump speak at SXSW?
Shortly after the November presidential election, Forrest wrote on the website Medium about a large SXSW meeting in which the surprising outcome was discussed and a decision was made to add specific programming to the conference to address Trump’s impact.
“I can’t remember a meeting with as much passion and as much emotion and feeling as this one,” he wrote at the time.
Since the announcement of “Tech Under Trump,” the schedule has been fleshed out with speakers including CNN’s Brian Stetler, Dan Rather, technologists in virtual reality and self-driving cars, as well as social activists across 10 panels. That’s in addition to a SXSW track specifically devoted to government-related panels.
Forrest said "Tech Under Trump” is not intended to be a forum for Trump bashing. “I think we want to aim this more to A) inform people on what the new administration aims to achieve in terms of tech and B) to inspire people to bridge some of these gaps that we learned about as a result of November 8.”
Interestingly, SXSW is not pursuing Trump himself or members of his cabinet as potential speakers for 2017. “No, that is not currently a goal,” Forrest said. “These relationships typically take quite a while to build. It’s not likely or imminent for 2017.”
The conference did announce James Comey, the head of the FBI, as a featured speaker for March 13. It raised some blowback on Twitter and a group on Facebook said it plans to protest the event.
“We respect their passion on the topic,” Forrest said.
Some of the longtime attendees say they welcome the focus on politics and government at this year’s SXSW, since it seems to be dominating every other conversation in the country.
“I’m very concerned about the future of net neutrality, alternative energy, environmental science and NSA oversight,” Coleman said.
Lenat said he thinks Trump could be good for the tech industry in the long run in terms of regulation and corporate taxes, but has concerns about the Trump administration’s lack of respect “for the legitimacy and power of science.”
“I am hardly a disinterested party since I run a tech company here in Austin!” Lenat said.
Forrest believes SXSW has an important role to fill, even more so in contentious times.
“A lot of people want to be inspired and are looking for inspiration,” he said. “That goal is even more important for 2017”