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SXSW 2018: What to expect at Austin’s tech, media, and music extravaganza

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Lots of marketing, activations, and breakfast tacos

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

The Verge is headed back to Austin for another week of brand activations, breakfast tacos, and bold prognostications about the future of technology and culture. That’s right — it’s SXSW, when industries as disparate as artificial intelligence, social media marketing, virtual reality, film, TV, and music collide in the heart of Texas’ cultural mecca.

For the uninitiated, SXSW is a kind of conference conglomerate. It mixes high-minded tech and entertainment industry speaking sessions with a long-running pair of music and film festivals. In between all the talks, concerts, and screenings, there exists a dizzying array of sometimes entertaining and almost always absurd marketing stunts taking place on behalf of big-name brands. SXSW is the one place where you can see the showrunners of Game of Thrones speak to a conference hall just down the street from a McDonald’s-branded virtual reality experience at an event space that will, later that evening, host a popular indie band from Brooklyn.

The Verge will be in Austin broadcasting The Vergecast live on Twitter and recording a live episode of our podcast Why’d You Push That Button?, and we’ll also be on the ground covering all the happenings at the intersection of tech and pop culture. For those interested in what the fuss is all about — or attendees curious about what’s worth seeing while in Austin — we’ve put together a list of our most anticipated speakers, tech trends, and film and TV premieres.

This isn’t a comprehensive list; for a full rundown of what’s happening at SXSW this week and next, it’s best to check out the official and exhaustive scheduling website here. For our full coverage, be sure to check back at throughout the festival this March.

Biggest Speakers in Tech

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Eddy Cue: One of the biggest panels this year at SXSW features Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president in charge of internet software and services. Cue essentially runs the App Store as well as Apple’s growing services business that includes everything from iCloud to Apple Music to the company’s burgeoning original video efforts. He was one of the masterminds of the iTunes Store alongside Steve Jobs and helped make Apple’s MP3 and, later on, its smartphone business into some of the world’s most successful software ecosystems. He’s speaking at SXSW with CNN’s Dylan Byers on the future of media curation.

Ev Williams: Ev Williams is a serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur behind some of the most important web products of the last 15 years. He co-founded Blogger, sold it to Google for millions, and later founded the company that would become Twitter, where Williams served as CEO for two years. Following his stint at Twitter, Williams founded the publishing platform Medium. He’ll be at SXSW talking with Recode’s Peter Kafka and Mic’s Cory Haik about the push toward video content among news publishers and what role platform-owning tech companies play in influencing the format and style of information that’s disseminated on the web.

Melinda Gates: One half of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates runs the world’s largest private foundation alongside her husband, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, with the aim of using their immense wealth to reduce poverty, expand health care, and increase educational opportunities around the globe. At SXSW, Gates will be speaking alongside TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot and talent attorney Nina Shaw about the nature of work in the 21st century.

Tristan Harris: Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris is the founder of Time Well Spent, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming how Silicon Valley designs its products to help our apps and hardware better align with human values. Lauded by the industry and seen as an influence on figures like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Harris will speak about the quest to “ethically manipulate minds” in an age of “fake news, computational propaganda, and addictively designed technology products.” [Update: Harris’ talk at SXSW has been cancelled “due to an unexpected personal matter involving the speaker.”]

Susan Wojcicki: Building on SXSW’s theme of interrogating tech platforms in the age of Trump, fake news, and state-sponsored propaganda, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki will be speaking with Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson about navigating the murky waters of a platform responsibility. The duo will also be discussing the growing influence of YouTube, its class of video-first creators, and how the site is helping redefine media. Oh, and there will be probably be a question or two about Logan Paul.

Steve Huffman: Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman took back the reins of the social news site in 2015 at a time of heightened controversy when Reddit was caught between its commitments to free speech and its hosting of increasingly hateful and bigoted communities. Huffman has since realigned Reddit’s values with those of more traditional Silicon Valley companies, banning certain communities and updating its policies to match. At SXSW, Huffman will speak with Inc journalist Christine Lagorio-Chafkin about how Reddit was returned to glory through product, policy, and leadership changes that speak to the tech industry’s broader responsibilities in 2018.

Biggest Speakers in Culture

Darren Aronofsky: Black Swan and Noah director Darren Aronofsky made a splash last year with the trippy, uncomfortable, and deeply allegorical Mother!, a provocative film that tackled the Book of Genesis and climate change in equal measure. Aronofsky is a film keynote speaker at SXSW, and it’ll be fascinating to hear his thoughts on the Oscars, the role of independent film in 2018, and the goal and purpose of challenging art.

Lena Dunham: Girls creator Lena Dunham will be at SXSW this year talking with Samantha Barry from Glamour about “authenticity” in media and what it means to speak to and connect with a female audience. Dunham, who’s made headlines of late for controversial comments on everything from reproduction rights to the #MeToo movement, is known for giving insightful and genuine interviews, and this one will likely be no different.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Not only is Coates an award-winning journalist and novelist and a hugely influential voice in the conversation around racism and black identity in America, he’s also a renowned comics writer. Having penned the most recent string of Black Panther comics, Coates has now been tapped to write a new Captain America comic. Coates will be at SXSW with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg talking everything from the importance of Marvel films to how we think about and combat injustice and bigotry in the Trump era.

Rian Johnson: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson is now Star Wars royalty, having been given a new trilogy of films by Disney to expand the franchise beyond the Skywalker saga. Johnson will be speaking at SXSW with his longtime collaborator and producer Ram Bergman, who helped Johnson make the sci-fi classics Brick and Looper that helped him land a dream Lucasfilm gig.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy: Westworld showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have created one of the most cerebral and talked-about TV shows of the last decade. With season 2 arriving on HBO on April 22nd, fans couldn’t be more hyped to return to the remnants of Stillwater after the shocking season 1 finale that aired nearly 18 months ago. Nolan and Joy will be at SXSW with Westworld cast members James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, and Wired’s Jason Tanz. Not only that, but HBO is also bringing a two-acre immersive interactive adventure to Austin to tease the second season.

Ernest Cline: Ready Player One author Ernest Cline is just weeks away from seeing his pop culture reference-loving novel on the silver screen, in an adaptation directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. The film comes out on March 29th, and Cline is slated to speak at SXSW on March 12th in a conversation with David Baszucki, CEO and co-founder of massively multiplayer game creation platform Roblox.

Tech Trends to Watch

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Artificial intelligence and automation: Will a robot take your job? If you’re an American, most of your fellow citizens sure think so. Accordingly, you’ll find a lot of panels about bots, artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, and robotics at this year’s SXSW. These run the gamut from dystopian to practical to downright optimistic and touch on just about every aspect of modern life, including art, work, health care, and internet comment sections. One of the biggest events will come on Tuesday when Google futurist Ray Kurzweil will discuss how AI can “intensify human intelligence in the way that a lens can intensify the power of the sun.” (That may sound kind of threatening, but this is Ray Kurzweil we’re talking about — so he means it in a good way.) The spate of AI and automation events is trend-driven, but unlike some tech trends, it’s also genuinely relevant to most people’s lives. And if nothing else, you can check out the reviews for More Human Than Human, a “personal, playful” documentary about a filmmaker trying to replace himself with a robot.

Augmented and virtual reality: As we noted back at CES this year, Virtual reality has pretty much faded into the background as the hype has diminished and consumers wait for the technology to catch up to its ambitions. Meanwhile, augmented reality has taken up the mantle of the new, futuristic tech we’ve put our sci-fi hopes and dreams into. Here at SXSW, there are plenty of AR and VR panels about the future of both industries, and let’s not forget that VR may see another surge in cultural relevance with Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One hitting theaters later this month. To that end, Warner Bros. has teamed up with HTC to bring a Ready Player One experience for the Vive to Austin that promises it will transport users into the fictional OASIS universe. Let’s hope you don’t need to memorize obscure ‘80s pop culture references to enjoy it.

The blockchain: What is the blockchain, how does it work, and why in the world does it seem to be everywhere? The term blockchain is a nebulous one, referring in often tangential ways to the underlying peer-to-peer structure of cryptocurrency systems. It’s now dominating the conversation in industries like artificial intelligence, tech policy, finance, cloud computing, and, yes, even cannabis startups (according to one sad pitch currently in my email inbox). At SXSW, blockchain hype is at a fever pitch, with dozens of sessions and meet-ups dedicated to the burgeoning industry that can’t seem to adequately separate the genuine from the bullshit. Making sense of it all is the surest way to see where this technology is going, and whether it’s the real deal or mostly just another marketing ploy.

Social media and democracy: Rising tensions about how we get our information — and whether we can trust it — can be found throughout this year’s schedule. Keynotes from Wojcicki and Harris will likely address those issues in great depth, as will a talk from Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who has pushed tech platforms to reveal more about how Russian operatives used them during the 2016 election. Other sessions will attempt to identify solutions to our information crisis — using artificial intelligence, for example, or placing more emphasis on fact-checking.

The Most Buzzed-About Film and TV Premieres

Isle of Dogs: The new stop-motion animated film from director Wes Anderson, Isle of Dogs, will likely be the most talked-about film screening of SXSW, taking place on one of the final days of the festival and acting as the official North American premiere. The movie comes out on March 23rd, so this will be an opportunity for critics and fans alike to see the movie ahead of its general release. Starring a dizzying cast of high-profile voice actors like Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Greta Gerwig, and Scarlett Johansson, Isle of Dogs is about a dystopian future Japan where dogs are quarantined on an island full of trash, on which a young boy named Atari sets out in search of his dog Spot.

Hereditary: Although Ari Aster’s Hereditary already screened at Sundance, the giant splash the breakout horror film made back in January is sure to make it a must-see movie of SXSW. Starring The Sixth Sense and Little Miss Sunshine’s Toni Collette — alongside The Leftovers’ Ann Dowd and young Matilda The Musical wunderkind Milly Shapiro — Hereditary explores a family’s descent into the supernatural after the death of a grandmother unleashes a malevolent force that threatens to destroy their bodies and spirits. Called our generation’s The Exorcist, it isn’t aimed at the faint of heart.

Krypton: Syfy’s new Superman spinoff Krypton is about the Man of Steel’s home planet generations before it was destroyed. It centers on Kal-El / Clark Kent’s grandfather Seg-El, to be played by relatively unknown actor Cameron Cuffe. Created by The Dark Knight trilogy writer David S. Goyer and Stargate producer Damian Kindler, Krypton will have its first episode screening at SXSW, ahead of a March 21st premiere date.

The Last OG: Fresh off his historic Oscar win for best screenplay, Jordan Peele is headed back to TV with a new TBS comedy series called The Last OG. The show stars Tracy Morgan as an ex-con trying to reintegrate into his old life in Brooklyn. While Peele himself won’t be in Austin, episodes of The Last OG will be screened at the Paramount Theater, to be followed by a Q&A with director Jorma Taccone, Morgan, and co-star Tiffany Haddish.

Paradox: Lately, it seems like independent-skewing film festivals have been showcasing a lot of first-time directors who are also well-known actors, like Idris Elba (whose Yardie premiered at Sundance this year), Rupert Everett (The Happy Prince, also at Sundance) Andy Serkis (Breathe debuted at Toronto in 2017), and Brie Larson (Unicorn Store, also at Toronto 2017). The latest to join the choir is Daryl Hannah, of Kill Bill and Blade Runner fame. Her directorial debut Paradox, which Netflix just purchased for distribution, comes with a dreamy, not particularly revealing description that describes it as a “far-fetched, whimsical western tale of music and love” taking place “somewhere in the future past.”

Prospect: Directing duo Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell first showed the 14-minute short film that would become the feature-length sci-fi flick Prospect back at SXSW 2014. At the time, my colleague Bryan Bishop called it “gripping and atmospheric,” and “an example of how ingenuity and a do-it-yourself mentality remain the most essential tools in any filmmaker’s arsenal.” The film made due with a small budget bolstered by Kickstarter funding to tell the story of a father and daughter on a lush, forest-filled alien moon. Now, equipped with more cash and a longer runtime, Earl and Caldwell have expanded Prospect into a bigger sci-fi vehicle, but centered around the same thematic core. The film will premiere at this year’s SXSW on March 10th.

A Quiet Place: SXSW’s film festival will kick off this year with A Quiet Place. Written, directed, and starring The Office’s John Krasinski, A Quiet Place is a supernatural horror film about mysterious, murderous beings that hunt by sound, forcing humans to live in complete and total silence. Krasinksi plays the father of a family of four in the film alongside his wife Emily Blunt, who plays the mother of the film’s two young children played by child actors Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds. Paramount Pictures is releasing the film on April 6th, so SXSW will be the first chance critics and moviegoers will get a chance to see the film.

Update at 12:11PM ET, 3/9: Clarified that Tristan Harris’ session has been cancelled “due to an unexpected personal matter involving the speaker.”