Political talk and top speakers: Will Trump dominate SXSW 2017 without even showing up?

In our second SXSW preview, we take a look at who’s speaking and Tech Under Trump.

Posted March 6th, 2017

It would be difficult for South by Southwest Interactive to top last year’s opening keynote speaker: President Barack Obama, who was interviewed by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.  (Though Joe Biden, announced on Monday as a March 12 speaker, is a pretty big get.) The conference says it never reached out to President Donald Trump as a potential speaker, but it’s clear that the new U.S. president will loom large over many of the talks at this year’s SXSW across a range of topics.

This year’s keynote slots reflect an emphasis on social issues and compelling stories versus landing the biggest names (more on some of those in a bit).

Jennifer Doudna, a University of California-Berkeley researcher who has pioneered genome editing, was the first tech keynote speaker announced. Joining her in the keynote lineup are author Adam Grant, who is working on a book with Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg about facing adversity; “National Geographic” adventurer Cory Richards; and Jessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, a coalition making a data-driven case for welcoming LGBTQ communities — she’s likely to address the Texas “bathroom bill” working its way through state the Legislature.

Kim Leeson / TEDxSMUJessica Shortall, managing director of Texas Competes, has been announced as a keynote speaker for SXSW 2017.

Last week, SXSW announced its last keynote speaker, Yasmin Green, head of Alphabet’s Jigsaw division (formerly Google Ideas), which uses tech to try to solve such problems as online harassment, cybersecurity threats and violent extremism.

This year, SXSW Interactive attendees will have more access to content on the SXSW Film and Music side of things, including keynote speeches from filmmakers Lee Daniels (“Empire”), Gareth Edwards (“Rogue One”) and Jill Soloway (Amazon’s “Transparent”), along with musicians Nile Rodgers, Zane Lowe and Garth Brooks.

Check out our previous SXSW Interactive preview, focused on what’s new and different for 2017, a preview on things to do without a badge, our unofficial parties database and our ongoing SXSW coverage on this page.

For those seeking even bigger names, the SXSW featured speakers list is packed with celebrities (Seth Rogen; Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the cast of “Veep”; John Cena; Bob Odenkirk of “Better Call Saul,” “Game of Thrones” stars and showrunners), people from the world of politics (U.S. Sen. Cory Booker; speechwriters Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett; CNN’s Van Jones), a giant conference room’s worth of tech entrepreneurs (among them the co-founders of Reddit and Tumblr) and a famed anti-clutter guru, author Marie Kondo.

Focus on politics

Though it could lead to volatile conversations, SXSW hasn’t shied away this year from politics, and it is encouraging panelists and attendees to discuss issues of diversity, immigration and specifically how the new president’s policies could affect all areas of the tech industry.

In December, as national nerves were still jangling over a contentious transition, the conference announced its “Tech Under Trump” track, two days of panels devoted to the topic.

The panels, of which there are about 18 as of this writing, with possibly more to be announced by next week’s end, cover areas including self-driving cars, the media, trade wars, startup investment and how the tech industry will deal with what some perceive to be an unpredictable presidential administration. That track takes place March 15-16, but many panels prior to that at SXSW Interactive are likely to focus on Trump as a topic of conversation, particularly in SXSW’s Government track.

The conference’s opening talk, a conversation with U.S. Senator Cory Booker, will take place 11 a.m. on Friday. 

In January, SXSW announced that it had booked FBI Director James Comey, who drew controversy during the 2016 presidential election, as a featured speaker. That session is scheduled to take place on March 13, and it could be the subject of a protest that was being organized on Facebook after the session was announced.

Earlier in the year, South by Southwest issued a statement condemning the Trump administration’s travel ban, suggesting that it would pose a problem for artists and attendees from countries included in the executive order. The travel band led at least one performer to cancel.

Last week, the conference found itself mired in its own immigration controversy when a SXSW Music performer backed out of the festival, citing language in the conference’s visa agreement.

SXSW said the social media post from the performer, Told Slant, was misleading and that the conference’s policies toward international performers hasn’t changed from previous years.