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SXSW: A Glimpse Of Where Society Is Heading?

03/24/2016 03:50 EDT | Updated 03/25/2017 05:12 EDT
Jack Plunkett/AP
Tory Lanez performs at the FADER FORT Presented by Converse during the South by Southwest Music Festival on Friday, March 18, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP)

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Josh Tetrick of Hampton Creek and celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern at SXSW Interactive

South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual interactive/film/music festival that attracts thousands of hipsters each year to Austin, deserved kudos for lasting 30 years. This year it even attracted the U.S. President and First Lady as keynote speakers.

But after experiencing my first SXSW -- watching Generation Z up close, hearing panelists weigh forward on everything from how to make food cheaper and healthier to the prospects for virtual reality and Twitter -- I don't know if I've left Austin with higher hopes for humanity.

Its not the sight of thousands of young, hip kids roaming around glued to their screens -- at least we as a species have evolved to the point where we can simultaneously text, navigate a crosswalk and talk to a companion. Nor is it the somewhat vulgar lyrics coming out of the mouths of the many hip hop artists on SXSW stages. Nor is it worrisome predictions from futurists such as Kevin Kelly that in the years ahead we will each be 100 per cent totally tracked by others.

It just seems to me that by now we would have figured it out better -- how to tweak technology to make us superior collaborators. How to nudge young kids offline in order to be less self-centered and more we-centered, aware and caring of other people and the environment.

Information shared at SXSW actually says email is making us dumber! Yep -- with the average worker checking email 36 times-per-hour, his IQ has been reduced by 10 points due to email distraction.

What does that say about how our kids will end up, who are being lured to screens more and more, and who seem to think little or privacy concerns for the sake of expediency and convenience.

Take the chat app Kik. Do we really need yet one more app that encourages young teenagers to chat online? Since the Waterloo-based company launched their app -- complete with compelling emojis and the ability to send GIFs -- it has attracted more than 200 million registered users in just four years. Law enforcement officials say apps like Kik and Snapchat have become hunting grounds for predators.

I also fear that chat apps are leading more kids to a dangerous stage of device-olation where they lose the ability to communicate, collaborate, hold normal conversations. As adults they're likely to suffer from bandwidth separation anxiety every time they fly on a plane with no wifi.

Indeed, a recent study indicates that the number of kids as young as two (yes two!) who have used a device for media had more than doubled between 2011 and 2013. Other research is showing that kids raised on devices are starting to show less empathy and are having problems reading facial expressions.

Though to its credit, Kik has been engaging kids to participate in campaigns with the World Wildlife Fund and other causes. They also concede there's a need to nudge kids from online to offline -- at least for a bit -- towards charitable causes or volunteerism.

A couple of people who do give me cause for hope are TV personality and celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern and Josh Tetrick, the founder of Hampton Creek, which describes itself as the world's fastest growing food company with a mission to "bring healthier and affordable food to everyone, everywhere." Zimmern and Tetrick are nothing short of rock stars, and ooze empathy. Both have been to some of the world's nastiest places, to leverage their brains, connections and resources to bring people more food and water.

Tetrick agreed with me that climate change is a real concern, and is diminishing the amount of arable land in the places that need it the most. The bright side, he said, is that there are hundreds if not thousands of plant species that have never been tapped for nutrition. And guess what? Many take less water to grow.

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Many countries, including Ireland, were promoting their high-tech industries at SXSW

Here in the United States, we need to encourage people to invest in themselves and learn how to cook -- in the process weaning them off unhealthy and expensive processed foods, Zimmern said. It'd also be good if large corporations kick their addiction to growing corn and soy for healthier alternatives such as kale and carrots.

More cause for hope: big tech and media companies are becoming more savvy about corporate social responsibility. I heard some great concepts from the likes of LinkedIn and Pandora. Turns out that music is a great way to move kids to do good. With more than 80-million active users, Pandora has the reach to move people to move - and is helping young kids to learn music instead of playing with tablets. Nice!

Turns out we are also getting a better grasp of how to combat modern slavery, described as the fastest growing illicit industry (with up to 36 million individuals forcibly helping to generate an estimated $150-billion in profits each year). There's even apps to help monitor the industry and help put the bad guys out of business.

In the interests of disclosure. in the couple of hours it took me to write this piece I checked my social media apps six times and my email twice. I hope I'm not dumber for it.

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