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Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, 2002
Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams, 2002(Film still)

So the CIA is trying to recruit people at SXSW

‘We got a booth out there with free CIA swag’

Every year thousands of industry heads descend upon Austin, Texas for SXSW – the annual conference and festival showcasing the best of culture: music, film, TV. And now, the United States Army?

This Monday (March 13), the CIA hosted a panel titled ‘Spies Supercharged: Tech and Future of CIA, featuring some of the agency’s senior officials. While the panel promised to offer “a wide-ranging discussion on the future of intelligence” (read: propaganda), it also doubled as a recruitment scheme to enlist a fresh batch of “supercharged spies”, promising new avenues to “avoid boredom” with “kickass ingenuity”. But in reality, the panel was kind of... cringe, a ‘how do you do fellow kids?’ attempt at luring in a fresh batch of tech-savvy recruits, with boomer promises of how “it’s awesome behind the curtain!”

During the panel, CIA officials outlined their mission with seeming transparency, explaining how they function as a “secret arm of the US overseas”, using covert action to influence political and economic activity abroad. “Supercharged spies are exactly what you want, and what you deserve,” said David Cohen, deputy director of the CIA.

He also spoke about using technology to combat country-to-country surveillance, even going as far as asking the audience for any ideas they might have to tackle this. At one point, the CIA called for more partnerships with the private sector, saying that the US needs to “supercharge” its ability to keep up with foreign adversaries against threats like social-media manipulation and ubiquitous surveillance by tapping into “where these innovations are done”.

When asked if the CIA is currently engaged in domestic surveillance, Cohen responded: “Totally fair question. We are a foreign intelligence agency. Our collection is focused entirely overseas.” But perhaps the funniest moment in the entire panel was mid-recruitment plea, when one of the panelists called out: “We got a booth out there with free CIA sh-wag!” OK, I admit this is tempting in a post-ironic-tech-bro kind of way, but as far as the intentions of the panelists go, it was entirely sincere.

Strangely, this isn’t the first time the CIA has attempted to enlist the masses with #relatable, new gen-friendly presentations at SXSW. Back in 2016, they hosted America’s LGBT Spies: Secret Agents (of Change), a presentation by “America’s Top Spy James Clapper” and “self-declared LGBT ally” with a description that read: “#sxsw #LGBTspy”. More recently, the US military has gone as far as allocating millions of dollars to recruit Gen Z audiences, targeting Twitch influencers to “create original content videos showcasing the wide range of skill sets offered by the Army”, and to use influencers to “familiarise [their] fans on Army values and opportunities”. The viral popularity of E-girl army influencers also points to ways in which military recruitment is being normalised across social media.

So while the CIA’s SXSW appearance is undoubtedly creepy, what’s more insidious isn’t so much the actual panel itself, but the normalisation of military recruitment within supposedly free-thinking cultural hubs like SXSW (spies, they’re just like us!!!). As the line between culture and state-funded technology increasingly blurs – the same robot dogs that appeared in the most recent Coperni AW23 show were originally funded by the US military and have been used by US police as surveillance tools – this goes deeper than recruitment pleas and online memery, because under surveillance realism, the panel watches you.