This post originally appears on the Open University’s website ‘Platform’ linked here
I didn’t just go to SXSW for the free cocktails, late night parties, and spontaneous meet ups.
No, I had work to do and a part of that was my own research. Simply put, I was really interested to know if anyone had any idea as to what ‘the next big thing’ might be.
The conference centre was where most people would gravitate towards, yet personally I found it repulsive. Not initially. I got to the conference centre before everybody other than security and it was a space full of potential. The corridors were wide and inviting. The barriers set up for registration zigzagged the great hall and everything seemed geared up for conversation.
As soon as the circus kicked off though the punters (of which I was very much one) were penned in and sold to: whether it be the constant bombarding with brands hanging in the air, brands in your food, brands asking you to scan a QR code so they could infiltrate your phone or brands on napkins you could wipe your disgust on. There was no escape.
For a large chunk of the festival I played the same game. After all, I owe much to my own accidental brand and the very fact I was walking the Austin streets was down to sponsorship from forward-thinking British brands.
I soon realised I was not alone in my discontent. Not just for the massively monetized conference but for the scene itself.
Perhaps now social media appeared mainstream (this was after all the first year SXSWinteractive had outsold the music festival).. perhaps now everyone was doing it.. those that really cared had lost their niche. The early adopters surfing on the edge of a wave were not prepared for it to crash on the beach.
I am not a regular but I still had 2008 to compare with and this year certainly seemed to be some kind of tipping point. Where were the breakthroughs? Where were the new memes that will carry us into and through the next innovation horizon?
All the panels I wanted to attend seemed to be on simultaneously. Then when there was 10 minutes between events there was 20 minutes of travel to get to a distant hotel conference room. As a result I struggled to cover half of what I wanted to see. I took little comfort in the fact that in order to find out more, chasing people up who’d been to these panels returned the common response “meh”.
With all the tech saturation everything felt… well, wet and soggy. I was proud to be asked to talk about location based app LoveFre.sh as it’s based on discovering local produce and the people around it. Just using the app dropped me into peoples lives that were passionately going about their business because they cared.
It was this same theme of local that took me into the streets meeting the local community and those living locally during the festival.
There was also great insight to be had from the SXSW old timers: they knew where to go to find the pockets of reality amongst the cash-encrusted carnival. One of the high points of the week was being introduced to the Frey Cafe tucked away in the back of the Red Eye Fly bar. Ewan Spence led the way and the night was filled with magic. In it’s 11th year Frey cafe was unbranded & untouched since it’s origins. It was real life storytelling at it’s finest. But for how long? Just the presence of the festival in the city pushes the rents up on all spaces no matter how small and hidden away. These gems are being driven underground.
Also my conversation with Adriana Lukas on Self Hacking went a long way to restoring my faith in humanity…
At least the humanity that was in attendance. We need more disruption, more disrupters and do-ers. If the masses are now going to be shovelling data into the web like everyone else.. Where are the artists, the chefs who will make sense of it all and present us up beautiful bite-sized chunks that we can not only share with those around us… but that we can get excited about as we dwell upon relevance?
All this relentless shovelling is just leaving a hole where meaning used to be. Show us how these technologies make life better. That is all. Because it can you know.
The free alcohol-induced hedonistic nights left a bitter taste in my mouth when I woke to hear the news in Japan. It was mobile tech and social platforms that were getting the news to me.
In talking to those around me on the streets of SXSW I found an empathy I felt was lacking in the halls and auditoriums. It wasn’t easy to reach out across the world to a nation in need other than to chuck money in their direction in the hope that would make their problems go away.
This is just the beginning. We have the users: let us hone the use. Buzzwords of Game Layers and the Gamification of education are just words without the social interaction these mechanisms seem to rely on. My offline interactions were way more rewarding than my online ones. The social tools I used enabled me to find the people I wanted to share physical space with.
I came away from SXSW 2011 with realisations very different to what I’d expected.
Our fate seems to be in the hands of the digital shepherds, the designer/developers who in my opinion need to display our time-based data intertwined with our geographic data. I think it’s been given a fancy name like Geotemporal Visualization.
Easily accessible time/space data sets done well are necessary if innovative collaborations are to create some kind of empathic strands that span out to link our online relationships.
The SXSW interactive festival made me want to unplug and turn everything off. Only for a moment though. I found that turning on just a few channels, a back channel, a transmission frequency and a slight turn of the ‘squelch’ dial to allow just enough background conversation in …and I was re-engaged.
I am still looking for the balance of on vs. off. I am still looking for the niche.