FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

South By Southwest Interactive

by ROBERT BRYCE

The complaints about the South by Southwest Interactive conference have become as reliable as the blooming of the redbud trees that line Austin’s Lady Bird Lake.

Every spring, there are articles declaring that the event is, choose one of the following:  “over,” “not a tech conference anymore,” suffering from “growing pains,” that it has “has lost its compass,” and that, well, it’s just too big. As a long-time Austin resident (nearly 30 years) I can verify that the last item on that list is true. Last year, more than 30,000 people attended SXSW Interactive. (Another 30,000 were in town for this year’s event.) The swarm of “digital creatives” who swarm the city during the five-day conference, along with the hordes who come for the SX film, music, and .edu events, choke the city. They snarl traffic, overwhelm the restaurants, crowd downtown sidewalks, and convert big swaths of the city into no-go zones.

I’ve seen the evolution of SXSW up close. I started writing for the Austin Chronicle (the city’s venerable alternative weekly) in the late 1980s, at about the same time that the Chronicle’s owners, Nick Barbaro and Louis Black, along with two friends, Louis Meyers and Roland Swenson, started the music festival. The Interactive part of SXSW, was launched a few years later by another long-time acquaintance, Hugh Forrest.

The complaints about SXSW are as old as the festival itself. And I will readily add my own complaint about how Austin is being overwhelmed by  the festivals and conferences that are now happening nearly year-round and how they commandeer our parks and streets. But when it comes to the Interactive part of SXSW, which ended on Tuesday, I am an unabashed enthusiast, a total and complete evangelist.

If you want to renew your faith in America – along with your belief in innovation, entrepreneurship, and the innate human desire to create and do  — come to SXSW Interactive. It represents the best of America. SXSW Interactive is a sprawling gig that has become unwieldy, unfocused, and overwhelming. And I have no problem with any of that.

There is a reason why people from 74 countries are now in Austin, with badges hanging from red lanyards around their necks. They are here because they want to learn. They are here because they want to be close to the flame of creativity that is burning brightly here in my adopted hometown.

I’ve attended dozens of conferences. Some of them I’ve attended as a speaker, others as a civilian. They are generally soporific affairs designed around obligatory business meetings, sprawling trade shows, and plans for extended cocktail hours. A cynic could argue that that same description could be applied to SXSW Interactive. But what makes SXSW Interactive so intriguing is that it brings together tens of thousands of people and nearly all of them are on the make.

Yes, a lot of people come to Austin so they can eat enchiladas, drink some Lone Star beer, and catch a Dale Watson set at the Continental Club. Those are all worthwhile activities. (Except, that is, for swilling Lone Star.)

What differentiates SXSW Interactive from the hundreds of other conferences is that so many of the attendees are hustling. They come to Austin to promote themselves, their new app, or their new gizmo. Last year, I was dazzled by a new company called Hive Lighting. At the trade show, two 30-something entrepreneurs, Jaime Emmanuelli and Jon Miller, were displaying their high-output lights, which offer a smaller, lighter, cheaper alternative to the conventional lights that are used for stage, TV, and movie productions. Their key technology: plasma bulbs — which use a radio frequency to excite inert gases and take them into the plasma state. Hive’s plasma lights use about half the power of metal-halide lights and about a sixth of what’s needed by incandescent lights.

While people like Emmanuelli and Miller come to Austin to sell their wares, many others come wanting to hear big ideas. And on Friday afternoon, about 2,000 people attended a session on the top floor of the Austin Convention Center that featured Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab and Tim Brown, the CEO of design and consulting firm IDEO. For an hour the two talked about design, engineering, and education. Both discussed the need for more people who were educated in practical skills – and particularly the ability to actually make things. Brown said schools need to have more students “learning by doing instead of learning by thinking.”

Ito concluded the session by explaining that the old method of education has, in many ways, become outdated due to the Internet. To illustrate his point, he used a bit of hyperbole, saying that to be educated, students no longer need to “read the whole Encyclopedia Britannica.” Instead, they can download whatever pieces of of knowledge they need from the Britannica, or another source, when they need it. “The problem with schools is that they are assuming a world in which people are not connected,” said Ito.

As I listened to Brown and Ito, I looked around. To my right was a man from Madrid, who was putting something on Twitter. A few minutes later, a pair of people from Buenos Aires passed by. An hour or two earlier, I’d listened to a presentation on the latest developments in African telephony, done by a trio of people, one from Rwanda, one from Kenya, and another from Zambia.

While walking through the packed-with-people Convention Center, I ran into another long-time acquaintance, Peter Zandan, who is the vice chair for research at the communications firm Hill & Knowlton Strategies. Zandan has been a high-tech entrepreneur in Austin for decades. When I mentioned how much I love SXSW Interactive, Zandan nodded his head toward the throngs of people who were passing all around us, and said simply, “It’s a mess.” And he quickly added, “There’s something amazing here.”

Zandan is right. SXSW Interactive is a mess. It’s also amazing. And in that regard, it’s a lot like the United States.

The US isn’t “over.” Despite its myriad problems,  it remains an amazing place, one that allows the free flow of ideas, enables innovation, and incubates entrepreneurs. The fact that so many people come to Austin every year to participate in SXSW Interactive is proof positive that people still want to come to America.

I’m not a flag waver. I don’t believe in “American exceptionalism” whatever that dubious phrase may mean. But SXSW Interactive provides proof that the US is still a great country, one that despite its many faults, stands as an example to the rest of the world.

Robert Bryce will publish his fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 22, 2017
Paul Street
Russiagate and the Democratic Party are for Chumps
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer, the Progressive Caucus and the Cuban Revolution
Gavin Lewis
McCarthyite Anti-Semitism Smears and Racism at the Guardian/Observer
Kathy Kelly
Reality and the U.S.-Made Famine in Yemen
Kim C. Domenico
Ending Our Secret Alliance with Victimhood: Toward an Adult Politics
L. Ali Khan
Profiling Islamophobes
Calvin Priest
May Day: Seattle Educators Moving Closer to Strike
David Swanson
Jimmy Breslin on How to Impeach Trump
Dave Lindorff
There Won’t Be Another Jimmy Breslin
Jonathan Latham
The Meaning of Life
Robert Fisk
Martin McGuinness: From “Super-Terrorist” to Super Statesman
Steve Horn
Architect of Federal Fracking Loophole May Head Trump Environmental Council
Binoy Kampmark
Grief, Loss and Losing a Father
Jim Tull
Will the Poor Always Be With Us?
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s “March Massacre” Budget
Joe Emersberger
Rafael Correa and the Future of Ecuador: a Response to James McEnteer
March 21, 2017
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt
On Being the “Right Kind of Brown”
Kenneth Surin
God, Guns, Gays, Gummint: the Career of Rep. Bad Bob Goodlatte
David Rosen
Popular Insurgencies: Reshaping the Political Landscape
Ryan LaMothe
The Totalitarian Strain in American Democracy
Eric Sommer
The House Intelligence Committee: Evidence Not Required
Mike Hastie
My Lai Massacre, 49 Years Later
James McEnteer
An Era Ends in Ecuador: Forward or Back?
Evan Jones
Beyond the Pale
Stansfield Smith
First Two Months in Power: Hitler vs. Trump
Dulce Morales
A Movement for ‘Sanctuary Campuses’ Takes Shape
Pepe Escobar
Could Great Wall of Iron become New Silk Roadblock?
Olivia Alperstein
Trump Could Start a Nuclear War, Right Now
David Macaray
Norwegians Are the Happiest People on Earth
March 20, 2017
Michael Schwalbe
Tears of Solidarity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit, Nationalism and the Damage Done
Peter Stone Brown
Chuck Berry: the First Poet of Rock and Roll
Paul J. Ramsey
What Trump’s Travel Ban Reveals About His Long-Term Educational Policy
Norman Pollack
Two Nations: Skid Rows vs. Mar-a-Lago
Michael Brenner
The Great Game: Power Politics or Free Play?
Sam Gordon
Falling Rate of Profit, What about Some Alienation?
Jack Random
Sidetracked: Trump Diaries, Week 8
Julian Vigo
The Limits of Citizenship
James Graham
French Elections: a Guide for the Perplexed
Jeff Mackler
The Extraordinary Lynne Stewart
Lee Ballinger
Chuck Berry: “Up in the Morning and Off to School!”
Binoy Kampmark
Romancing Coal: The Adani Obsession
Nyla Ali Khan
Cultural Syncretism in Kashmir
Chad Nelson
The Politics of Animal Liberation: I Can’t Quit You Gary Francione
Weekend Edition
March 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
John Reynolds
Israel and the A-Word
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail