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The Best of America

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.