Walking around Austin you can see the spirit of rebellion and creativity all mashed up into cowboy-hipster contradictions – imagine skinny jeans and cowboy boots. It’s as if Portland was dropped into the middle of the Texan plain with artisanal boutiques and artists’ squats intermingled with bars and BBQ on every corner. Austin is a city full of amazing contradictions; liberal vs. conservative, art vs. commerce, and rural vs. urban. It’s run by a new type of creative class, built by a DIY ethos handed down by the cowboy ranchers who founded the city in 1839. In Austin, ‘weird’ is considered a badge of honour.
This is the city where Cody Wilson was born and raised. Wilson is the man responsible for creating a plastic handgun on a 3D printer. “What does it mean to have a 3D file that could be readily assembled by a machine into a firearm?” asked Wilson. A self-described ‘gun loving anarchist’ with a strong libertarian bent, Wilson spoke with the intellect of a poet and a scholar and made a very strong argument for why we should care about his right to 3D print guns.Wilson presciently called his gun the ‘Freedom Pistol’ and shared the 3D files with anyone who wanted them (over 2 MM downloads were reported). Until, that is, the government raided his office and hauled away his 3D printers, suing him for IP rights to the 3D files. Although Wilson didn’t break any laws pertaining to arms distribution and he made sure he had all of the proper licenses and paperwork for firearm manufacturing, the government was still able to shut him down. It turns out that any armament designed and manufactured in the US is the property of the government. Thus, the US government sued Wilson under an Intellectual Property rights claim. It reminded me of Al Capone going to jail for tax evasion. If Uncle Sam wants you bad enough, he’ll find a way.
Listening to Wilson and his cowboy anarchist fight with the US government I had to acknowledge that we may be entering a new trans-political age where access to and freedom from data become an alternative political structure. Do we need to question the role of government in being the stewards of information? Are elected officials capable of dealing with these issues within the existing political framework?
Indeed, the keynote speakers that generated the most buzz were political whistle blowers and Austin-style shit disturbers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Although they were not physically present, they set the tone for SXSW attendees by focusing our attention on the dark and foreboding reality of governments’ intent to create a global net of surveillance. This year, SXSW headed back to its roots, taking on a more political agenda with its programming.
Yup, debate over privacy and liberty in a digital world has drawn in the politicians and the bureaucrats. There was a palpable feeling of tethered advocacy at SXSW this year. That is to say it felt like the SXSW community knew it needed to address the politics of our actions…it just didn’t want to. “Crap,” we were all thinking, “the party is over, now we need to act like adults”. Responsibility and accountability have crept into our cozy world of apps, VC’s, and Moonshots. Questions now dominate the debate.
…Damn you SXSW for opening my eyes! I just want to look at Grumpy Cat pictures!
Missed Part 1? Read it here.