SXSW 2017: Three ways comms can help us keep pace with technological change

At SXSW 2017, the annual Texas music and tech conference, an emerging theme was being repeated across panels, debated over dinner and shouted over the blare of live music at 2am - technological innovation is not enough by itself.

How can comms explain and excuse technology, asks Michael Bodansky
How can comms explain and excuse technology, asks Michael Bodansky

Over the past five years the excitement of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and machine learning has matured and the mood at this gathering in the desert shows a growing mainstream realisation that these technologies will have an enormous impact on our society.

We’re just not sure what that is yet.

The difficulty is that these technologies are merely tools. They can be used to control populations and consolidate power just as easily as they can be used to reduce suffering and improve the lives of millions.

To take the industrial revolution as an analogy, electricity and steam engines were wielded to create vastly different societies: the technology of the 19th Century led both to Communist dictatorships and liberal democracies.

And we can’t assume that the likes of artificial intelligence and machine learning are niche issues because they are only understood by a small handful of people.

In the Industrial Revolution only a small group of people understood how steam engines and metallurgy worked, but that didn’t stop millions of people adopting these new inventions, causing enormous disruption across almost every industry.

As the likes of AI and machine learning grows and develops, there will be more and more ethical implications of their use. Instead of coding as the default for tech-savvy teenagers, a growing need for ethics in modern technology companies might mean students thinking about a career in tech studying moral philosophy to get the highest paying jobs.

At SXSW this year, this feeling is palpable. Session topics range from whether human genetic engineering will enhance global inequality to whether it will be considered murder to switch off a highly advanced machine coded with AI.

As the impact of these technologies becomes more acknowledged, we will see three areas where comms professionals will be needed most:

• Firstly, internal comms and employee engagement will be vital to connect the teams working on developing the technology to in-house ethicists. Communications expertise will be needed to bridge the gaps between science and the arts.

• Secondly, more and more crisis comms work is focusing on technology clients that have to negotiate a minefield of issues and their potential reputational impact - whether it’s a data breach, loss of consumers’ information, hacking, or online trolls.

• Thirdly, there will be an increased scrutiny on whether the technology that the world’s largest companies are investing in and creating is a force for good in the world.

This is taking place against a backdrop of populist politics where many people see technological change as a force for evil - as it takes their jobs, makes them redundant, and makes the world a more confusing, scarier place.

In a world of multidisciplinary approaches, where philosophy meets science, where biology meets engineering, and where tech meets ethics, communications expertise will be a highly prized commodity.

Michael Bodansky is an account manager at freuds. He spoke at SXSW 2017 on ‘How Behavioural Psychology Can Explain Brexit’

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