Streaming tech fail mars Jennifer Doudna genetics keynote at SXSW

Posted March 11th, 2017

Saturday’s South by Southwest keynote, a talk from geneticist Jennifer Doudna, had all the makings of a standout SXSW presentation. It’s about future-looking technology that could affect the lives of literally billions and that is so in its infancy (about five years, really), that most of us haven’t even heard about it, much less understand how it works.

But a major tech problem and an unfortunate case of less-than-compelling storytelling from the University of California Berkeley researcher made the presentation feel like a rare missed opportunity for a SXSW keynote.

Let’s start with the tech issue: the keynote attracted such a large crowd to Ballroom D at the Austin Convention Center that the line was cut short and attendees were redirected to a large nearby spillover hall to watch a video stream of Doudna’s talk. That was fine until a rotating circle began to indicate that the stream was catching up, causing glitchy pauses in the talk. Then it went out entirely, cutting to a SXSW logo screen. Attendees waited. Then they waited a few minutes longer. Then they got up and started filing out.

By the time the video feed returned, about a third of the audience had dropped out, and that was in addition to a steady stream of people who bailed as early as 10 minutes into the science-heavy, facts driven talk.

Doudna is the co-inventor of CRISPR­/Cas9, a technology that introduces gene editing to science. The implications are astounding, from helping to eliminate some diseases to (and this is no exaggeration) helping to pilot the future of the human race. As Doudna herself mentioned early on, there are major ethical implications to this science.
But those ethical dilemmas were barely explored; instead, the talk felt like a series of science facts, from an explanation of how viruses work, to what CRISPRCas9 actually involves, that it became clear after a while that there weren’t going to be any compelling case studies to illustrate the huge issues at play or any kind of compelling narrative to wrap around such a heady subject.

As two viewers told me later, one of them a medical writer, Doudna laid out fact after fact without explaining the bigger picture. 

For those in the spillover room, matters were made even worse by an incomplete presentation that ended 35 minutes after it started (we caught about 30 of those minutes).

“…so that’s really what I wanted to tell you today…” Doudna said as the video stream returned from a long break, drawing big laughs from those who remained.

Things brightened up by the time the audience Q&A started, but by then a significant chunk of the audience had tuned out or left at least one of two big rooms.