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.

photo (4)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.Cory-Booker_Amanda-Stronza

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.

  • Ryan Coogler, creator of Fruitvale Station, gave a talk with his friend and fellow break-out movie maker, Jordan Vogt-Roberts in which the two of them Process WTF Just Happened. The intimate conversation was leveled principally at other aspiring filmmakers, hoping to mine the success stories for golden advice. Coogler described his experience with sudden public attention and the strange twist that made him the mascot of a political cause. “My movie premiered right when the Trayvon verdict came out and suddenly everyone’s calling me trying to make me into a political pundit. I know a lot about Oscar but I’m not an expert in anything else,” confided Coogler. His tone was humble and his refrain was gratitude. Get pumped for his next partnership with Michael B. Jordan on the movie Creed.
  • Mitch Kapor of the Kapor Center presented at a forum called The Latino Digital Landscape: Insights & Solutions, a discussion of the evidence that Latinos make up a highly digitally connected demographic that has been overlooked by marketers and anyone with an interest in mobilizing the group for social action. Kapor’s talk along with others that focused on people of color in tech spurred the hashtag #divtech to trend on twitter for two days. The following statistic, quoted from Laura Weidman Powers of CODE2040, was hugely retweeted: “The starting salary of a Computer Science major is greater than that of the median household income of a Black family and Latino family combined”
  • Paul Cloutier, the Oakland-based designer behind user generated magazines and web series, participated in the kind of conversation that justifies Interactive’s entire existence. User-Generated Content: Who Owns What? addressed the legal standing of user generated content within intellectual property law. Because “user” denotes such a wide spectrum of online participants, corporations have been reaching ahead to exploit any ambiguity they can to claim ownership. Cloutier and the other panelists debated the tricky circumstances when Public Good violates Creator’s rights. They stressed the necessity of clear and honest Terms of Use and advised the public to know their platform’s terms before using it.
  • Ben Valentine of The Civic Beat participated on a panel titled The LOLs of Nations: Understanding Global Memes. Based on his research in Kenya, Valentine described how the incredibly fast-growing population of East Africans on the internet has made use of memes to re-animate depictions of themselves against Western stereotypes. As the most accessible form of political commentary, the panelists argued, memes can set impressions in the public imagination that are hard for the other side to undo. Spookily, some governments, like Romania’s, have made memes a priority medium for indoctrination, smear campaigns and propaganda.
  • Lastly, thought not part of the Interactive festival, there’s one film I have to mention because it’s so good. Oakland native Leah Meyerhoff’s I believe in Unicorns is full of East Bay iconography: the port, the bridge, the Alameda skate park, Berkeley High School, golden foothills, craftsman bungalows. The film lives in a sixteen year-old girl’s vantage point, in the porousness between imagination and reality, as she falls dangerously for her first doomed love. All of the stop animation, impressionistic footage and dream like images only make her experience more vivid and convincing. This is how a teenage girl feels. (And only we will notice the geographical impossibility of the road trip scenes in which the young lovers cross the bay bridge towards SF, are seen driving through sun-scorched hills and then decide to “head west into the setting sun,” and drive for days through more farmland and wilderness. Hmm, I guess that falls under creative license.)

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.

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