The queue to the 2023 SXSW keynote seemed manageable. Our intrepid editor was ready to squat at the opening session in order to guarantee a spot in a later keynote that was sure to be popular. But on this day, the conference gods didn't smile on our venturesome attendee, as the line was cut off just as entrance was imminent. What could be done? One possibility would be to play the “press card,” which had only a limited chance of success, or he could simply find another session to fill time until a seat in the main hall could be acquired. “Let's pivot,” he said to himself.

A new session was quickly targeted. With a few minutes to spare, our valiant editor found a seat where he would spend the next few hours catching multiple sessions The first session was chosen for the same reason as the first keynote: to fill a timeslot in order to guarantee a spot in the following session that seemed likely to be popular.

Once again, things didn't turn out as expected as the “throw away” session was anything but. This talk was titled “Beyond the Podium: How Athleta and Allyson Fenix Reinvented the Brand/Athlete Partnership.” It was an interview with Allyson Ferix, an Olympic gold medalist, mother, and entrepreneur. Allyson helped change the discriminatory nature of endorsement deals that's applied to female athletes. You see, female athletes are penalized when they decide to have a family - in particular, when they or their partners become pregnant. This speaker changed that. When her sponsorship was negotiated, she made Nike remove the penalties from her contract when the time came for her to have a child. I was floored that this was still a thing.

This is where our astonished editor learned the power of the pivot. The missed session led to an opportunity to catch another session that he wouldn't have chosen otherwise, and he learned not only a powerful lesson about discrimination (and fairness), but that staying open to new ideas was the best way to deal with nearly any situation.

Cut away to QCON London 2023. Another keynote. Jetlag provided a good excuse to sleep a bit longer and not worry about the opening keynote, but duty to CODE Magazine and the QCON hosts pestered. A few short rides on the London Underground later and our groggy editor finds himself seated in the Churchill Room of the Queen Elizabeth conference center. The keynote was delivered by Leslie Miley, advisor to the CTO of Microsoft. The keynote was entitled “AI Bias and Sustainability,” and, to be honest, the title really didn't do justice to the content that was about to be delivered.

This keynote focused on the negative impact that the current push into generative AI will have on our world resources, with negative consequences being felt for generations to come. Focus was spent on the amount of energy consumed by data centers, the amount of water consumed to cool those data centers, the land consumed by data centers, and, finally, the physical affects these all have on the people who live and work near these data centers. The picture painted isn't rosy.

A parallel was drawn to the construction of the federal highway system that began in the mid-50s and continued for a decade and a half. The federal highway system project came with a large number of benefits: Thousands of jobs would be created, interstate travel would be greatly simplified, and unseen opportunities would be reaped, including the population of the western states. The bad news - a harsh reality - is that these benefits came at a cost primarily to minority communities. To better understand these costs, you need to understand the discriminatory culture of the United States during that era. The concept of “separate but equal” was anything but, and the highway project reflected this attitude. Neighborhoods were divided based on race. Here's a truth that I'd never heard: Certain bridges in New York were deliberately created where buses could not cross them in order to keep “those people” out of certain boroughs. This is an astonishing fact, much like the contractual issues facing female athletes.

It's become important to ask ourselves whether the creation and usage of AI is going to continue the divide of the haves and the have nots. To better understand, here are a few facts that were mentioned.

  • The amount of water generative AI takes to cool its hardware is prohibitive. Scarcity of water causes problems on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic cohort.
  • Building data centers is costly, especially in terms of land use. Where is that data center going to be located? Is the creation of a data center going to displace people from their homes, and if so, who will be displaced? If history is any indicator, it will likely be the same cohort that is already affected negatively by previous generations of “improvements.”
  • Now is the time to consider the negative side-effects of this technology and do something about it rather than when it's already released, too late, and irreparable harm has been done.

It's great that you're thinking about these concepts now. So is our earnest editor. He's also recognizing that the power of the pivot is in getting unexpected insights that are important and might change the way you develop, do business, vote, or live your life. Our erstwhile editor went to sessions he'd no desire to see and came away enriched with new insights that will change the way he goes forward in the world.

Consider the figures. They were captured by two photographers. The two photos, taken minutes apart, are of the same wall, yet provide entirely different perspectives. Figure 1 is zoomed in on the little purple guy and Figure 2 is of the same location, only zoomed way out. Notice anything different? You know, like the BIRD? The person who shot the zoomed in image COMPLETELY missed the bird, as his focus was on the purple dude.

Figure 1: A close look (copyright 2023, Rod Paddock)
Figure 1: A close look (copyright 2023, Rod Paddock)
Figure 2: The whole picture (copyright 2023, Jessica Cargill)
Figure 2: The whole picture (copyright 2023, Jessica Cargill)

Such a simple change in perspective clearly illuminates the power of the pivot. So take a chance and pivot. A perspective change is a powerful thing. Don't be afraid to learn something new.