SXSW Interactive 2012: Perspectives from a former Austinite

This year’s SXSW interactive blew me away. Never has it been busier. I remember many years ago getting free passes THROWN at me in hopes I would attend. There used to be just one panel discussion hidden away in the corner and nobody was really watching it.  A few years later I got to attend as representative of my former employer, Apple. The past few years I have squeaked by and not actually bought the passes, I either scored one or just attended the parties surrounding the festival.

Just a taste of the SXSW herd

This year I thought, go for it! I will see what this conference has to offer, what’s the real content? The decision was far more personal than business. It is essentially Geek-a-palooza for tech folk. The biggest message I received was to have hope and stay true to yourself. Be hopeful of what the future holds and what technology will lead us to. The exception to this was Billy Corigan (with his pet Brian Solis) who seemed to think that despite of our rage we are all just borgs in a cage. I’m not sure if Billy woke up on the wrong side of the bed or if he was hoping to affect tangible change by ranting to the ocean of geeks.

Across several panels there was discussion about women in technology and how hard it is for them. Wah Wah! Come on. I guess there is a glass ceiling or a ‘box,’ but only if you imagine one. There is no box in my reality. I built my first website in the winter of 1997, almost half my lifetime ago. Never have I stopped to contemplate how difficult it is being a woman, in fact it can be an advantage. Like anything else I think it is tremendously difficult to be a player in the tech industry if you aren’t experienced or skilled – gender aside. Without being a traitor, I must say this; if it’s hard for you being taken seriously in tech as a woman, find a new place to work or beef up your level of knowledge. There are no excuses in baseball, tech or anywhere else, not if you expect to be successful.

Kevin Smith was by far the most sincere panelist. I don’t mean to imply anyone else was disingenuous, because that was not the case. Kevin just gave a very heartfelt lecture about his life, his father’s death and how he came to realize being a director wasn’t working for him. I saw Zach and Miri make a porno, so NO ARGUMENTS there, Kev.

The most interesting on a technical level was The secret lives of links by Jared M. Spool, (@JMSpool). The quote that got me laughing was “when marketing people win, puppies die.” Awwww, burn. Spool’s points were good, he said that links do want to deliver the content that is desired. Links are meant to emit the right scent to the user. Experience is not as important as design. These thoughts had occurred to me before, but hearing the data and stories behind the data were super interesting. Good geeky fun!

Everyone I know loves watching “The Office” on NBC. Rainn Wilson, who stars as Dwight on the popular show, happened to make an appearance at SXSW. COOL! Right? Not so much. While he was pretty funny in the introduction, even throwing an Ascii Dwight in there, it took an unexpected turn. We started hearing about spirituality and his pet project, Soul Pancake.  While some probably found it very insightful, I did not. I actually high tailed it out of there to catch the end of Steven Levy’s lecture.

You want to get immersed in the politics of technology? Understand the dynamics? Then read one of Levy’s books. He is a very experienced and intelligent man. He spoke about how simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, in reference to an interview with Steve Jobs. Some of the things Levy spoke about were historical in nature, but that’s why I liked it. We should understand where we’ve been before we can understand where we are going. I’d never thought of algorithms having politics, but as we progress scientifically, this becomes truer and truer. The biggest take away from Steven Levy was that he said our notion of privacy would be reshaped over time. This is vital for us techies who plan to stay around. We have to continue to evolve in our thinking to see that privacy can evolve too. Eventually our DNA could get hacked. Maybe Foucault was right with his notions of pan-opticon? Many people seem to worry that our next generation will be slow and have poor memories due to all the readily available information. Levy eased this concern by saying that Google only makes it easier to fake things. Maybe if attention spans go down that isn’t a bad thing? The world is changing. We are defined by evolution. Each generation should evolve from the next.


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