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At this year’s SXSW, the hard questions have all gone unanswered

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The festival’s biggest talks are also its safest

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

One of the most anticipated SXSW panels of this year featured Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. They are responsible for producing the televised conclusion to George R.R. Martin’s sprawling, wildly popular fantasy series, and the audience in Austin was hungry to hear new details. With a packed crowd in the ballroom and a line that snaked through the convention center down a staircase to a lower floor, fans were salivating for even a sliver of information to hold them over until the season premiere in July. Oh — and perhaps some insight into that ill-fated ice block live stream reveal.

Instead, the crowd got a cheery trip down memory lane, replete with Entertainment Tonight-style behind-the-scenes anecdotes and warm-hearted reflection on what a wild ride it’s been. The blame for that lies with the moderators — Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner, better known as on-screen sisters Arya and Sansa Stark.

The actors-turned-moderators had a good time role-playing as journalists, but the panel suffered for it. Benioff and Weiss wrote some of their own questions for Williams and Turner to ask them, resulting in chats about their own favorite TV shows (Rick and Morty) and memorable moments on set (like an upcoming cameo from Ed Sheeran). When the panel did unexpectedly turn to hard questions, like when an audience member asked about the influence of Game of Thrones on female representation on TV, the writing duo tried to make the moderators answer instead. “You tell me,” Benioff said.

Too many SXSW panels felt just like the Game of Thrones keynote. In numerous talks this week, interviewers have seemingly been selected for their ability to dodge controversy. In some instances, the festival has invited subjects’ friends and even family members to serve as moderators. This made for some good laughs, sure, and SXSW isn’t alone in hosting panels that serve nothing but softballs. But given the weighty nature of the subject matter SXSW Interactive claims to cover — this year was rife with sessions on workforce automation, the surveillance state, and the future of the internet — it’s hard to take SXSW seriously when its marquee panels deliver nothing but pabulum.

A series of tech talks this week reflected the festival’s conflict-adverse tone. The eminent futurist (and Googler) Ray Kurzweil was joined onstage for a keynote discussion led by none other than his daughter, the writer and cartoonist Amy Kurzweil. The interplay between an artist and her futuristic father made for an interesting discussion about family and creativity. But it left little room to examine, say, how society will grapple with the effects of widespread automation, or to discuss the ethical dilemmas involved with ever-more-powerful AI taking on bigger roles in transportation, medicine, and warfare.

Ray Kurzweil and his daughter, cartoonist and author Amy Kurzweil, onstage at the SXSW Interactive festival on Monday, March 13th.
Photo by Katrina Barber / Getty Images for SXSW

Even when journalists were moderators, they struggled to push their subjects into making news. Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, in a discussion with IEEE Spectrum editor Susan Hassler about the democratizing nature of the early internet, never received a question about the polarized nature of the internet we inhabit today — with Facebook dominating the distribution of media, for example, or Twitter providing a platform for white nationalists. The discussion only touched on the internet’s dark, conspiratorial, and abusive underbelly at Cerf’s own suggestion, when he offered different solutions to “prohibit the bad actions that take place” on the internet. Yet this was only after Hassler urged Cerf to talk at length about his personal life and background.

The biggest newsmaker at SXSW this year should have been FBI director James Comey, who was expected to face questions about Russian interference in the US election and President Donald Trump’s baseless claims about Obama administration wiretapping. But Comey pulled out at the last minute, forcing festival organizers to substitute the FBI’s chief lawyer, James Baker, for a criminally bland discussion. Even The New York Times, which sent editor-in-chief Dean Baquet to talk about news in the age of Trump, was interviewed by one of his own employees, media columnist Jim Rutenberg, who joked quite a few times about pushing back against the man who writes his check.

A company named Slido, which served as the festival’s platform for audience members to ask questions, deserves some of the blame here as well. The app and its web portal worked fine, but it also meant that every question was screened by the moderator — and we’ll never know what great questions went unasked because a moderator felt uncomfortable reading them out loud.

On one hand, SXSW has always been much more of a party than it is a news conference. But after seemingly reaching a digital-marketing nadir in 2014, the festival has slowly bounced back, cutting back on the most groan-worthy advertising panels and introducing more far-future discussions into the mix. When Meerkat erupted at SXSW in 2015, the festival seemed newly vital. But after a lackluster 2016, and an even less newsworthy 2017, it’s fair to again ask what the point of all these panels is supposed to be. It’s a hard question — and one that, just like one of its many wooden guests this year, the festival would rather avoid.