Seattle Interactive Conference: Dispatches from a digital world

Snippets from a day of digital mania at the Seattle Interactive Conference.
Snippets from a day of digital mania at the Seattle Interactive Conference.

9 am: Things get off to an exciting start as an electrical fire prompts the evacuation of the breaking news session I'm attending on the 3rd floor of the Convention Center's conference center. In true digital-head fashion, conference-goers tweet the disaster before evacuating, nullifying the need for a breaking news session at all. REEer, REEer, REEer, fire trucks arrive and everyone stands outside for 45 min, frantically snapping photos on their iPhones.

10:05 am: Drop into a session on Starbucks' media and marketing with Dan Beranek, Starbucks' Director of Digital Marketing and Ryan Turner, Director of Global Social Media and Digital Creative. They show me a tweet of theirs: a smiley face emoticon. 1508 Retweets. 272 favorites. It was a mistake, tweeted by a digital manager during training, but Ryan and Dan use this to emphasize the value of Starbucks' friendliness and human connection.

Starbucks certainly appears to have their engagement strategy figured out (They claim 53M Facebook fans — yes, 53 million, 3M Twitter followers, 20K Pinterest, 873 K Instagram, 611K Google+) and the pair, a good-humored but polished duo, reflect this. Their customers can suggest ideas and get feedback from staff on a Starbucks Ideas forum and their social media channels are infused with ideas to connect with their customers personally, but at scale, directly from the creative team.

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One example is a recent Valentine's Day campaign, "Everylove," which follows Tom, a regular kind of guy (except for his love of shorts in all seasons), who does a massive free Starbucks run every Thursday for the doctors and patients in a local cancer ward.

11:20 am: Pop into a session with Microsoft's Ana Pinto da Silva on Innovation in Design. She has a soft, lilting bedroom voice with a hint of an accent, which she uses to spin a history of innovation through the last hundred years and to posit the changing global landscape we're facing now.

  • A huge global migration to urban centers.
  • The demographic divide, a huge gap between wealthy, rapidly-aging countries and developing countries with high birthrates.
  • Resource constraints. (By 2025 growing food, energy and water constraints are expected. Innovation will be unavoidable.)
  • Universal data access: Growing connectivity raises questions about privacy and creates room for enhanced productivity and decreased waste.

"Yet again, we are at another beginning," she says (I was too enthralled by her storytelling at the time to think much of the redundancy of this statement). For the next half of our careers, Da Silva says, we will be dealing with these issues and the many social, ecological and technological questions they raise. I feel as if I am listening to a bedtime story, an epic myth: The Design Narrative.

In The Design Narrative, designers are interwoven with and integral to all business, and education itself adapts to fuel this designer burn. We are all freed from artificial corporate bonds to create truly amazing, integrative projects that meld social good, alternative energy, utility, beauty and art. Examples of these things already exist: Masdar City, the Bird's Nest — a stadium created in partnership with Ai Wei Wei for the Beijing Olympics, Chicago's system to de-carbonize its downtown, biomimicry and 3D printing.

"You can pilot a sub from your cell phone for just $35," Da Silva trills. "How can you say no to that?"

"The task of design is to imagine the future, being both parent and midwife to ideas."

12:30 pm: Meet Tom at the Valve booth. Tom can't tell me what his job title is because he doesn't have one. Valve uses a flat management model to build video games and Tom proudly shows off a trio of shiny white guns that he informs me I can use to create and access space-time continuum portals. I leave intrigued with Tom and his team, but — as far as I can tell — in the same time and space.

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1:10 pm: Jason Silva. Silva makes ecstatic, furiously ethereal philosophy videos that aim to inspire awe about the possibility in the world around us. He calls them "philosophical espresso," but really there is no way to describe them except to watch one.

In person, he talks like a physicist-poet who seems to have taken too much adderall and quotes endlessly from Ray Kurzweil, The Imaginary Foundation and Peter Diamandis, whose latest book he recently made a fan-boy video for. Unlike other fan-boys though, Diamandis actually uses Silva's video on his book tour. When he shows us his videos, Silva is just as much a captive audience to his own vocal magic as we are. He stands on-stage with his arms crossed, silently mouthing every word.

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Silva's word for his own bizarre nuclear energy is hypermanic. Big ideas, he says, deserve this intensity, this attention, this poetry. He talks about a future in which we come evolutionarily full-circle. We will, he says, soon transition to a time when artists are using the human genome as a means of expression; where we can simply use technology to build solutions to material need; where we can remodel and improve our physical selves in a form of self-evolution. It seems he's been reading himself J. Craig Venter bedtime stories.

2:00 pm: Go to save my original musings on Silva and realize I've been kicked off Seattle Interactive Conference's wi-fi. My notes and ideas have disappeared into the ethers of the internet. This is the journalist's equivalent of having your fingernails pulled out slowly with pliers. My blood sugar is low after missing lunch to talk to Tom about gaming in education and I eat a sandwich and take deep breaths until rewriting the Jason Silva session sounds less frustrating.

3:33 pm: Sit in on a star-studded panel about television and video: Actor Tom Skerritt, SIFF head Carl Spence, Erik Flannigan of Viacom Entertainment Group and's Scilla Andreen debate the future of television. Skerritt has a little bit of a muddled Clint Eastwood vibe, but makes some good points about the value of strong narrative in attracting viewers, citing PBS' glorious historical drama, Downton Abbey. "Storytelling is the heart of everything we do," he says.

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All agree that the Nielsen ratings system, which is used to count the number of viewers each station has, is broken. No one watches live TV anymore, unless it's the news, and web views and DVR screenings don't count in Nielsen. Meanwhile, YouTube is disrupting the concept of long-range TV rights sales, and shifting everything to a new norm: Global rights. Flannigan blames Nielsen's inertia on the collusion of corporate interests, which have billions of dollars at stake, but says things will soon have to adjust to fit audience habits that are three steps ahead of big media execs.

Skerritt, who founded Seattle's The Film School to improve local screenwriting ("Screenwriting needed to improve here. This city has more young people shooting films than anywhere else."), believes that Seattle has all the right ingredients to become a film stronghold: technology, music and talent. Flannigan agrees that Seattle film dominance could happen, if we're able to provide an incubator for up-and-coming filmmakers a la LA's The Maker's Lab, which gives YouTube stars a salary and a video equipment playground.

The group also talks about the changing role of talent (the term in the business for actors and actresses). The main difference between today and five years ago: Talent must work hard not just to create the film, but to promote it. This is true not just at a viral web level (Flannigan: "YouTubers are the greatest video marketers there are."), but in big Hollywood productions.

General consensus: The web is shifting things away from live-broadcast networks, but all remain optimistic about the future of the industry. Says Andreen, "We'll always have films. Where are you going to go on a date?"

5:05 pm: Run into Silva at the Engadget Happy Hour at the Showbox Sodo, a nerdy male-dominated affair where tech journalists bounce around on-stage giving away shiny new gadgets. We discuss the role of religion in social change movements and I try to convince him a la Mars Hill that there is a huge contingent of young adults hungry for community through organized dogma. My efforts are unsuccessful, though I do leave with the satisfaction, if just for a minute, of feeling superior to someone with nearly 350,000 YouTube views.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.