Those of you who are not tech wonks may not know that the South by Southwest festival, known for its music and its film series, also holds a third series they call the Interactive Festival. Interactive is the place where pretty much anything that is not a film or a musical performance can be showcased before an audience. Think TED talks only much broader and jacked up on a lot of free Monster energy drinks and cranberry infused Vodka.
What began as a gathering for techies to launch their latest devices and startup ventures has grown to include speakers from just about any field imaginable and has largely become a marketing fair. Most people in attendance are there to attract investors, scope out investment opportunities and increase their visibility. Attendees are seduced and harassed by brands doling out free goods in exchange for an app download, a hashtag shoutout or simply a glance at their sign; large corporations obviously do this best so the dominating presences are Samsung, Microsoft, AT&T, et al.
The panels and lectures have titles like “The Avatar Will See You Now: Inside Virtual Health,” “Culture & Business: How to Create Culture Envy,” ”Do It Together Is the New Do It Yourself,” “How Overcrowded Asian Cities Inspire Innovation,” “Is Facebook Making Houses of Worship Go Extinct?,” and “Panopticon to Pinterest: A History of Surveillance.” If you’re wondering what all the Anthropology and Sociology students did with their degrees it’s this: they went into marketing.
The major theme this year ended up being open data, with half the conference in the Assange and Snowden camp remonstrating the need for privacy and the other half telling us how privacy and personal data can best be monetized. The conference is full of these contradictions because, like the internet itself, it began as a horizontal forum for enterprising anti-establishmentarians and has since become capitalized. The good ideas are still there but the aggressively expensive gimmicks garner the most attention.
The effect of the whole experience over a few days, for me at least, is that the boundary between the internet and physical space becomes harder to distinguish. You’re navigating what seems to be an infinitely expanding and micro-articulating convention center with lecture halls like hyperlinks and brand stands like ads—although sometimes they’re hard to tell apart.
You have tunnel vision on your SXSW app for schedule times, locations, directions and maybe twitter commentary, and the sponsorship iconography on your phone app is the same as the iconography around you. You start to get dizzy.
Both places are confused by a convergence of workspace and social space. We start the day at South By with free mimosas and Bloody Marys and don’t stop drinking until late, yet most of us have been sent by our employers. Casual conversations are sized up for network leveraging opportunities, everyone’s memorized their pitch, everyone’s hoping to close or, failing that, get laid. We’re socializing in service of commerce, we’re attending conferences about commercializing social data, we’re using web services to socialize our product and around and around and around.
Your cell phone is such a crucial device at South By that you have to recharge it from empty two or three times a day (as comedian Jerrod Carmichael said at his South By set: “If heroin, and using heroin is anything like how I feel when I’m looking for a phone charger…I understand”). For this, many companies have set up charging stations to lure you in to their stand.
I just can’t emphasize the overwhelming volume of free stuff enough. The number of pulled pork sliders, gourmet ice cream sandwiches, fresh pressed superfood juices, craft beers, jalapeño poppers and kombucha beverages that I turned down—because apparently there’s just a limit to how much of that stuff a person can enjoy—is sickening. It’s hard to imagine how all the money they invest in that kind of giveaway advertising earns its returns but I trust that the anthro majors know what they’re doing.
Despite these conditions, the fact is that some of the most interesting people in the world present at South By. Of course, Oakland was solidly represented. Here’s a recap of a few of the exciting appearances made by our own.
I do not return home heralding news of the launch of the next Twitter-or-whatever promising to remake society but I did have a few interesting conversations, win some 3D-printed marshmallows, seriously consider the pros and cons of having a smart phone implanted in my forearm and witness someone get stunned by a drone.
The future will surprise no one.