I first attended SXSW at the height of the mobile app frenzy. Twitter had just launched and quickly became the app to have at the conference. The rise of Twitter intensified the Venture Capital feeding frenzy at SX (tech people are too lazy to enunciate the SXSW moniker). I recall sitting in the lounge of the W hotel – a few blocks away from the Austin convention center – observing multiple offer sheets being negotiated between young men in t-shirts and those in custom tailored suits. After overhearing some of the valuations the VC’s were giving a 6 month old company, I remember wanting to start an APP company… ah, the good ol’ days!
Then there was last year’s SXSW, a watershed convention where technology, media, marketing, and venture capital coalesced into a mass cultural moment. We witnessed the birth of 3D printing, cat memes, Google Glass, private space exploration to Mars, and the Internet of Things. It was the year of the Moonshot – ideas so big and audacious that it was hard to believe we weren’t at a Sci-Fi convention. However, one important distinction with other confabs was that the ideas being discussed at SX were actually happening (Ted Talks, I’m looking at you).
So SXSW 2014, how are you going to top Elon Musk talking about building a space program to colonize Mars?
After going through the schedule and trying to figure out what the must see panels were going to be, I quickly realized there was a distinct lack of ‘Moonshot’ ideas that were going to be presented. No Elon Musk, no Google Glass, no 3D printing… no Grumpy Cat viral memes? WTF SXSW?
Although the distinct lack of cat memes was heartbreaking, there were some interesting and dominant ideas present at SXSW 2014. Rather than focusing on the tech, code, or hardware that would transform humanity, SXSW wanted to talk about people. What are people actually doing with technology? How are people being treated by technology? Is more technology a good thing? Does humanity need more technology? What is the role of tech in government, democracy, and civil liberties?
SXSW wanted to poke, prod, and ask tough questions about our society and how the information economy is impacting us. On the surface, these types of existential questions seem to be more suited to the pot haze of a university dorm room than an international technology conference. Yes, this was the year SXSW grew up to become a pissed off 21 year old shit disturber with a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots.
Revolution and rebellion were in the air. In the wake of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the financial collapse, mainstream society has awoken to the grim realization that their elected officials have lost control over the underpinnings of a social democracy. Topics like ‘Cryptology’, ‘Silkroad’, ‘Anonymous’, Bit Coin, and Wiki Leaks are now covered in mainstream media. This year it was as if SXSW and its host city of Austin were holding up a mirror to ask, “is this the techno utopia we envisioned?”.
A tough question to answer outright, but Cody Wilson, the inventor of the world’s first 3D printed handgun gave it a shot. Wilson’s presentation epitomized SXSW 2014’s leaning towards politics, privacy, and existentialism and opened a lot of eyes along the way.
Check out Part 2 of my SXSW ponderings to delve deeper into politics, technology, and accountability.