The convention center’s principal ball room, relatively quiet for the mass of people in town to attend, was all but filled with a half hour to go before the discussion began. It was an appropriate beginning, and introduction, to SXSWi; a talk with two leaders of the world’s most impactful and ambivalently loved company (Eric Schmidt, Google’s departed CEO and current executive chairman, sat alongside Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas), in a discussion moderated by Wired senior writer Steven Levy. It truly doesn’t get more Silicon Valley than this.
While the conversation was focused on the overarching topics of the day in the world of technology — privacy, power, and money (Schmidt had nothing but praise for the 50 employees of WhatsApp, recently acquired by Facebook for $19 billion) — there was plenty of crossover to consider in the moguls’ presentation to Austin.
Something touched on — and perfectly encapsulated by a suit brought against Courtney Love for defamation over tweets she sent (which she won in January), or any number of public snafus and embarrassments, from Bieber to Tony Weiner — is digital permanence; our inability to erase our digital trails.
“Google’s presence has made information that was public, but hard to find, easier to find. You and I are old enough to remember that when you were a teenager and made a mistake you’d go to juvenile hall — but when you became an adult you could petition the court to strike that,” said Schmidt. “You can’t do that anymore. The person says they were never convicted [in court] — it takes a simple web search to verify and prove wrong. The fact of the matter is that stuff is recorded.” Schmidt also mentioned feeling sad over the personal ruination of an unnamed teenager who loses a job or educational opportunity after a video of them drunk is hypothetically (or not) uploaded to YouTube — a company he is in a position to effect change within.
Another issue of great and ever-increasing importance to the music business is mobile (i.e. smartphone) usage growth in developing or politically challenging countries such as China. “One of the greatest things that’s gonna happen in the next three to five years, another billion or two billion people, are going to join us. Smartphone prices are coming down. It is a huge achievement,” said Schmidt, who went on to outline the more fundamental benefits to people in unstable environments. “For them, it solves their education problem, their safety problem. It’s how they monitor corruption. Let’s not forget the enormous benefit for billions of people.”
The biggest issue in technology over the past year has no doubt been the revelations made public by Edward Snowden’s world-shaking blow of the whistle. The impact of these revelations on the music industry is amorphous and complex, but at the most basic level there is a groundswell of worry on the individual level over privacy in all respects as related to technology, from Facebook posts to Pandora listening data. People are more worried than ever while at the same time appreciative of the benefits that algorithmic data — most recently highlighted by Spotify’s acquisition of the Echo Nest — provides to users of services from Netflix to, well, Spotify.
“What’s interesting is that one of the things that’s different is that there’s been studies done on the public perception of Edward Snowden over the last nine months,” said Cohen. “There’s a celebrity factor around the people who are doing this [whistleblowing] now. People have different levels of judgement and there’s a real concern about the nature of celebrity driving more and more of these.” Will the future bring high-level technologists wanting to grab a piece of infamy for themselves?
At the very least, Google users have far less to worry about in 2014 than they did in 2013. “We were attacked by the Chinese in 2010 and attacked by the NSA in 2013,” said Schmidt. “These are facts. We’ve strengthened our defenses, both publicly and in undisclosed ways. The solution is to encrypt data at multiple points of source,” he said, going on to explain that Google has taken measures to safeguard user data against both the hackers’ troublesome ways — as well as from the governments of the world.