Somewhere in the wake of the panels and the keynotes, the trade show booths, pitch sessions, free tacos, apps, lines for free tacos, maps, parties, energy drinks, branded lighters, metrics reports, the impromptu meetings around tables already strewn with a forest's worth of postcards and posters and business cards-all attended by the requisite Tweets of course-one hopes the five day Interactive portion of Austin's SXSW festival leaves behind some interesting and possibly compelling ideas and things.
The best of these tend to be the sort that connect people together over shared interests, needs, and locations. Connecting and learning is, after all, the point of the conference, so what better testing bed for a new product than the scattered and geography and psychogeography of an entire downtown in thrall of technology? Think of SXSWi like a social network for a class of entrepreneurs, marketers, companies, writers, and academics: the best contributions don't blow minds so much as help them make sense of each other better.
Not so much this year. Everyone whom I asked for favorite moments or favorite ideas or favorite apps had nonplussed responses that were inflected, no doubt, by a heavy dose of fatigue. On the day after the Interactive portion had ended and the music portion was just starting to wreck new havoc on downtown, I sat for a moment of peace at the Apple pop-up shop, checking up on the news I had missed and enjoying the ritualistic unboxing of newly-purchased iPad 2s. Soon, the founder of a company that was a pretty big deal at SXSW a few years ago (and the thrower of one of the conference’s epic parties) sat down next to me to join in some listless screen scrolling. I asked if he had had seen or heard anything exciting over the course of the week. He looked at me like he had just come from a funeral. “Nothing stands out this year,” he intoned.
At the conference itself, big inspirations, ideas or threads were hard to find, at least outside the ones pimped by those with obvious agendas or books to sell. Seth Priebatsch's sunny keynote about turning the world into a game (as his SCVNGR app does, of course) – hailed as important by some – was at best interesting at times. But it wasn't worth jumping up and down for, as he seemed to be doing onstage throughout, while wearing a trademark pair of futuristic orange sunglasses atop his head. Anyone interested in more pressing issues like data-driven journalism or net neutrality or HTML5 would have only found familiar territory; even less inspiring was the conference's energy and environmental front. Here, the offerings felt as thin as a freshly harvested forest.
Chalk it up in part to the madcap style of SXSW. The logic of a conference in which 20 interesting-sounding things are happening at any given time—combined with dozens of apps made for sorting it all out—is one of frenzy and overload. It's easy enough to get addled trying to get to panels or meet people; try doing that when everyone is always telling you about the great speech you missed or the free taco giveaway around the corner. (Shamefully, the only taco I ate I bought myself, though it was worth every penny.)
Add to that madness the conference's stark lack of curation: anyone can suggest a panel, and panels are chosen by a public not infrequently made up of the panelists’ friends and admirers. Some reported that panelists were unprepared; others complained of the inevitable disappointment of false advertising. At least some moderators had the sense to alert their audiences at the start, as someone did at a panel titled "Time Traveling: Interfaces for Geotemporal Visualization": "This panel is not about time travel." Those who didn't warn audiences left them wishing for time machines, or some other way of undoing a whole hotel ballroom's worth of uninspired "buzzworthy" chatter and filling it instead with some buried string of interesting people and panels. There is no app for that yet.
There really should be: there are plenty of bright spots, if you can find them. When I slowed down and took a look around, I was lucky this year to stumble upon an entire conference within the conference that might best be defined by what it didn't include: "douchebag" social media marketers, as one panel called them. (It was actually run by a social media marketer.)
The conference as bloatware
This brainier SXSW tended to be made up of writers and historians and chefs and engineers in love with maps; say what you will about these geek-critics, but that's where I found the most innovative thinking. This conference-within-a-conference will attend panels like "Urban Technology on the Dark Side" and "Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted. Not!,", which was as confusingly named as it was illuminating—and hard to reach, many blocks from the convention center and reachable by a 45-minute shuttle bus ride.
Focused on the future of books and art and thinking in the digital age, the panel's animating question was basically how to stay afloat and thinking and creating and communicating in a Sargasso sea of bloatware. That may have been the most important question for SXSWi too. Richard Nash, the book publisher and futurist, raised an expansive but critical eye towards that buzz-filled other side of the conference (the one filled with "certain personages who are given Delphic status by the community"), and praised the simplicity of one of his favorite digital mediums, the SMS message. "The lack of audio and video in text media is a feature, not a bug," he said. How could that thinking be applied to a whole tech conference?
The best interactions I had at SXSWi were on the soft edges of the conference, on quiet streets, at dinner tables, in the quiet hours after everything else was said and done. I found some kind of strange peace at a makeshift trailer park that Hewlett-Packard built across the street from the convention center, as a way of marketing its newest printers. As a guest there, I was treated to an oasis equal parts David Lynch surrealism and William Gibson futurism: clever advertising in the form of a useful and pleasant bit of place-making.
As marketing-oriented as it was, what made that park valuable was what made anything or any place valuable at SXSW: the interactions inside. The problem is that these moments can be as hard to find in the messy web of SXSW as, say, finding a really good how-to website in an internet made up of content farms. Part of the sorting-through depends upon our own abilities, as Nash emphasized. "Fundamentally by making technology our handmaiden rather than being technology's – well, a term that I won't use – I feel tremendously optimistic in the ability of our society to find great art when it needs to—books, art, images, films, dress, shoes, chairs—the art that transcends our noise."
But it’s not only up to us. As Nash and others pointed out, the media in which that art comes packaged must be designed to meet us halfway. That's crucial at a gathering as big and canonical as SXSWi has become. The people who come to SXSW deserve an interaction design and a user experience that matches the system’s potential. Kevin Smokler, the CEO of Booktour.com, proposed a question to all the content makers and program pushers out there: "At what point is the thing you're adding actually adding something, and at what point is it just putting a hat on your dog?" He was speaking about digital software, but he could have been referring to the flesh-and-blood software of the event. Over its 16 years, the conference has, inadvertently or not, put a lot of hats on its dog. (Or, if you like, a lot of apps on its phone.)
How, amidst that constant nearly unwieldy addition, like the march of technology itself, can a convention like this make us better thinkers, creators, people? How do we improve our filters? Does the conference actually need to be split into two, one dedicated to the entrepreneurs and the salesmen, another catering to the critics seeking deeper intellectual fulfillment? I hope not. It’s in the cauldron of a conference like this that good progress can happen: entrepreneurs get to think harder about their various projects, and the critics learn how ideas are put into the reality of the market. This is ostensibly still a conference about interactivity.
Could SXSW become a more digestible and organized one, an event that brings unlikely groups of people together in productive ways while giving both virgin and veteran attendees even better navigational cues, more pared-down schedules, and less noise? If there is an app, the conference's official one was somehow not it. (My mind wanders towards and shudders at the possibilities that a real augmented reality application might confer upon the conference.) But the best upgrade is likely not something we can download to our phones.
Some people may think I’m being whiny or naive. "It's SXSW! What do you expect? Learn how to deal." Or maybe they’ll say, “SXSW is useless anyway; just have fun and eat a taco.” When I hear people say "deal with it" or “forget about it”, I think about the way people defend Facebook or the iPhone, as if these things were some inevitable outgrowths of technological progress that came with their own little problems, rather than the products of human engineers and designers. To those people, I say, “You're thinking too much about what the conference wants.” And what the conference wants, like whatever technology wants, is irrelevant without remembering what we want.
Among other things, more free tacos please.