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The Canaries of SXSW

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What did I see and hear this past weekend at SXSW? Coming and going? From different altitudes and perspectives? Canaries. And I don't mean the twitter species, even though swarms of SXSW (myself included) obsessively tweeted. No, I saw and heard canaries of the coal mine variety. The word on SXSW, the annual Austin music/film/internet fest, has long since ascended to the empyrean. Curious, I went. How could I resist? At least, I went for the first four days of the Interactive, the awkwardly (if in uber-tech style) monikered all-things-digital wedge of the triumvirate.

Middle-aged outliers (for me that would be along the edge of media) flocked to Austin this year. We rang a warning note in a minor key. SXSW Interactive is no longer a young-and-hip confab -- no matter how much some continue to play it that way. As SXSW oldtimers grumble-tweeted in the days running up to launch, SXSW has morphed way large and mainstream. There was chatter about next year breaking away and shrinking down. Likely trendsetters will replant. They always do. But in some form SXSW Interactive will remain because the internet is an ecosystem now, feeding web designers, appsters, graphic artists, public relations gurus, systems engineers, freelance writers, charitable NGOS, consultant-philosophers and hucksters. Basically, everybody was either looking for work or networking to keep working. In that way SXSW was no different than any other large sales convention I have seen.

David Cohn (founder of Spot.us, funded by the Knight Foundation to help freelance reporters fund stories) called this SXSW "internet spring break." So maybe the parties were great. But my sense was different. The daily parade of business cards squeezed under the brass trim of the Hilton Hotel elevators suggested a different story. Almost every stranger with whom I spoke was an entrepreneur hoping to garner business. Under the genuinely lovely confab spirit that Austin generates coiled a whiff of the unease that blows more strongly in other parts of the American economy now. I was surprised to find that SXSW was much like the Tea Party Convention in Nashville a month earlier: the same high sociability and enthusiasm cross-pollinated by fear. Yes, the angst was stronger in Nashville, because the typical Tea Partier has fewer financial resources on which to fall back than the better-educated cadres who swarmed downtown Austin, Texas during SXSW Interactive.

For a gathering with such a digital pedigree, SXSW was surprisingly weak in technological infrastructure. Like a traveling carnival down at heels but convinced of its glory, SXSW creaked and wheezed and stuttered along, in zany mimicry of our larger nationwide infrastructure, crumbling and increasingly outmoded. AT&T boosted wireless capacity for the festival but internet connectivity was sometimes a no-go. Fortunates like me had Verizon broadband for backup. Audio for panels and speakers came and went, crackled and popped. Audiences could not hear speakers; panelists could not hear each other. Video feeds to auxiliary rooms wiggled and wobbled. Little thought was given to sightlines. The Austin Convention Center itself is outmoded, its vast spaces strung with tight rows of chairs suited to an earlier era when audiences were passive consumers. Today conventioneers need a place to rest and plug laptops and netbooks while listening to presentations.

I thought often of the international media conference NewsXchange that I attended in Valencia -- with its seamless video-conferencing among speakers in China and New York with panelists in Spain, with its state-of-the-art audio, with lighting schemes both complicated and subtle, with beautifully-crafted short films instead of the lame and tiresome Power Point slides punctuating SXSW talks. How could an American media-and-technology conference be so behind -- and SXSW of all places! That, too, was a canary.

In counterpoint to this reality was the SXSW technological meme du jour. "Location, location, location." Twitter rolled out its new @anywhere application, tagging along with the merry Gowalla API and location providers like foursquare so that friends and (and the salient word) can know via our digital appendages where we are at any instant. Maybe because I've had a pitchforks n' torches moment or two, this does not sound to me like a particularly fine app. This sounds like the beginning of a dark folk tale, "Once upon a time ten foolish virgins traded their garments to the Jolly Giant in exchange for magic tricks. . . ." SXSW Interactive attracted flocks of these folks, who in their lemming-like rush to embrace the latest new thing dramatized the sad but comical truth that a fine education alas is not the same as wisdom.

The SXSW Foolish Virgins were canaries singing the digital age. Several keynoters -- Doug Rushkoff, Danah Boyd, Clay Shirky and Jaron Lanier--had been hearing canaries for awhile; at SXSW they tried to warn their audiences. For such different individuals, remarkably they have made similar journeys, from a vaunted (and undoubtedly justified) pride in building something that seemed at first to have such utopian possibilities to a realization of the consequences and price of the gift of Internet. For Rushkoff, it is the belated realization that the structure of programming shapes the meaning of content. For Boyd and Lanier, it is the loss of privacy and the ways in which we, especially the younger crowd, unwittingly squander it online. For Shirky, it is the plummeting value of work product in the new Internet world of abundance.

The reaction of the Southwesters to the keynoters dramatized the ongoing struggle to relinquish the idea that such a wonderful and beloved object as the Internet is both a tool to be handled with care and a portal to be crossed at risk. How many attendees heard the cautionary notes? Even as the latest gadgets and widgets catch our eye and we easily abandon the old for the new, our minds resist change and challenge. The canary here was more the dog that did not bark. There was an intimation of real news at SXSW Interactive on Friday, when Kaiser Kuo said (essentially--not an exact quote) that Google would stay in China when pigs began to fly. He proffered this observation as an inexorable consequence to Google's misapprehension of Chinese culture and the Chinese government's determination that society change slowly, implementing that determination by "using quiescence to control action." Kuo put forward a Chinese view of the balance between free speech and censorship that his audience had trouble wrapping their minds around -- apparently -- because Kuo's warning seems never to have made its way out of Austin Convention Center Exhibit Hall D.

Probably I caught the SXSW Interactive at its peak: brigades of Brits testified to that. And I had a lot of fun. But I couldn't help but wonder how soon the new Austin will be planted in Bahia or Bangalore. The creak of infrastructure and the assumptions we bring to technology that are culturally embedded in us but not in Internet itself sang to me. Oh, canaries!

Sometimes it's terrible to be not only middle-aged but also a curmudgeon.

Three days after Kaiser Kuo spoke, the Wall Street Journal revealed "Google Is Poised to Close China Site." And I can sometimes be quite funny on Twitter.

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