Evelina Lye
Mar 23, 2015

Technology mindfulness and the ethics of data: SXSW takeaways

SXSW is an absolute beast of a festival, gathering over 18,000 people from around the world for the SXSWi element alone. With hundreds of sessions over five days, and daily painstaking decisions about what to see (first world problem), here are four points that struck Evelina Lye of SapientNitro.

Evelina Lye
Evelina Lye

1. Be mindful of technology

Technology and mindfulness. Oxymoron? Well not so much at this year’s SXSW.

You might think it’s an unusual conversation to be having with a SXSW Interactive crowd, who are largely tech users to the extreme, but maybe that was the point. 

This dichotomy has given rise to the growing school of thought that saw many presenters raise questions about what impact our heavy reliance on technology is having on ‘us’—our social interactions and our minds.

For certain, technology and the constant connectivity it brings is ubiquitous and here to stay. However, those with their finger on the latest zeitgeist presented about new ways to manage forever being ‘on’.

A panel session on ‘The age of instant gratification’ debated the pros and cons of constant access and how we can use technology, music, film and other forms of media to balance our culture and hunger for instant gratification. Deferring that delayed gratification is often far more rewarding versus the instant social media ‘fix’ our culture now seeks.

As individuals we have some influence in the way we let technologies shape our happiness, but what are the responsibilities brands have to contribute to human happiness as we continue to innovate?

The Lab Strategy argued that brands and technology companies must support meaningful relationships by encouraging users to adopt a balanced approach to their tech lives in a talk titled ‘Digital Shift: Tomorrow’s relationships and ideals’.

Responsible brands will therefore need to ensure they have an ethical discussion around the way that they innovate, that fosters greater human happiness. Don’t be surprised then to see an emergence of technology ethics boards for emerging technologies springing up.

Technology, I’d like to add, wasn’t the nemesis here, but it seems we’re at a turning point. Socially we’re starting to ask questions like “Is technology adding or hindering our real-life experiences?” and if we’re creeping into the latter we need to take a stand and ensure the core purpose of any new innovative technology is to enhance and add greater value to our daily lives.

Having taken on board these ideas, I hot footed it to SXSW’s daily Black Swan Yoga session for a little ‘tech’ detox therapy myself, naturally only after I’d instagram’ed myself there!  

2. Your device will understand you better then you do

Imagine this conversation:

Q: “What do you think of her?”

A: “I’m not sure, but my PPLKR is telling me she’s making me 82 per cent anxious, 64 per cent weary and 69 per cent stressed.”

Sounds fictitious? No, this device exists.

PPLKR (pronounced "people keeper"), also referred to as the ‘Toxic friend finder’, is an app and smartwatch that monitors your physical and thus emotional reactions to those around you. The idea is that users can learn to surround themselves with people who make them happy and get rid off those who don't.

Technologies to help us understand our behaviours better and in turn assist our lives were all the rage at this years SXSWi. Contagious' North American editorial director, Nick Parish, and Leo Burnett's global head of social and mobile, James Kirkham, presented about this in a great session titled: ‘Connective tissue between people and tech’.

Much was mentioned about ‘Affective interfaces’—software that responds to moods, expressions, feelings and attitudes. This is big news for brands looking to understand consumers better.

An example the pair highlighted was ‘Emotion Scan’. One of New Zealand’s largest banks, BNZ, wanted to find out how consumers felt about money in order to change their behaviour. So, BNZ created Emotion Scan, a 3D facial imaging tool coupled with artificial intelligence algorithms to track and analyse emotions in real-time, enabling consumers and the bank to find out how people really feel about money.

This isn’t about blindly advocating algorithmically managed relationships in (PPLKR) and a bank simply knowing you’re unhappy with your mortgage repayments through a sad face. Used correctly, these sentiment detectors are fast creating groundbreaking ways brands can now access a whole new understanding of their customer through emotional understanding. Call it EQ for brands. Through this technology brands will be able to leverage emotion metrics to understand impact points for sale, augment click and site analytics with data that can validate market assumptions and improve creative cycles with better informed creative and messaging. Watch this space!

3. Fail fast, but also make sure it’s creative and productive

‘Failure’ a dirty word the world around. Not so much for Astro Teller, Google's captain of moonshots, who currently oversees Google X, an arm of Google dedicated to making major technological advancements.

When you shoot for the moon, you need to embrace failure, was his message to a packed room at SXSW. "I don't believe a mistake-free learning environment exists. Failures are cheap if you do them first. Failures are expensive if you do them at the end.”

Speaking of Google X's ambitions for its driverless car, Teller said, “We are looking for ways to fail all the time”. It’s impossible to envisage every possible road situation, so in an effort to test their cars they drive thousands of miles every day in the hope the car will fail so that they are able to rewrite and rewrite the programme so the driverless car becomes safer and even more secure. "Nothing beats going out into the real world and seeing if what a simulator says will work is actually possible."

Teller also talked about Google's most high-profile "failure," Google Glass, which Google shut down in January after a tepid response. The problem wasn’t with the device itself but with how Google positioned the product. It should have been positioned as an early prototype and not a finished offering. As such, hype for Google Glass far exceeded the functionality of the product itself.

Failure shouldn’t be seen as failure, then, and corporations need to embrace failure as part of their testing and learning. But you need to fail quickly and test products in their real environment with real consumers. Teller noted that the more you work on something, the less likely you’ll want to know what real consumers really think.

Astro Teller


4. Data and ethics. Two sides of the same coin.  

Despite the wealth of data companies are accumulating about us as human beings, we are incredibly predictable, so said Simon James, head of data and analytics at SapientNitro UK.

Simon presented a great session on how companies can exploit these predictable behaviours through his data learnings.

1. The more you do something, the more you’re likely to do it again. True of repeat web visits, app usage and customer purchases.

2. The longer you leave it, the less likely it will ever happen. Thus, the best time to re-engage customers are immediately after a purchase.

Simon went on to say that while understanding all this data represents a tremendous commercial opportunity to a smart marketer, our mastery of data is not infallible. He cited the failure of Facebook’s ‘Year in Review’, which in some unfortunate cases highlighted people’s houses burning down and deceased loved ones as the cover photo.

What we can do with all this data and what we should do then becomes a question of ethics that we need to take seriously given the severity and publicly widespread disdain if we don’t. James argues that it’s now time for brands to step up and communicate how they are protecting the data of their customers, and how they are limiting the use of such data as a matter of priority. Meeting the highest possible ethical standards with customer data is a must. Data is only as good as the person mining it and we need to mine responsibly. Amen.

Evelina Lye is head of marketing at SapientNitro Asia Pacific



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