Prototype device with unclear purpose other than tripping you up while walking.
The Curmudgeonly Keynote which Bruce Sterling delivers every year at tech conference SXSW riffed heavily this year on the ancient past: the lost desert people of Walnut Canyon, Arizona, who, like the flannel hipsters in the audience surrounding me, were once the greatest innovators of their day. As their climate changed, they created adaptive technologies: they learned to carve into the cliff faces, to harvest condensation, to build clay pots to catch and channel snow and rain. They became “the Stanford of desert survival techniques, the MIT of clay pottery.” But they passed. The cold wind blows through empty stone rooms. Their civilisation burned.
For Sterling, there’s a parable here about technological advance. He had predicted a few years back that the blog would be dead by 2017. Four years early, he asked with some smugness, “where at this SXSW were the keynote panels featuring rockstar bloggers? What startups or rollouts for blogging software were buzzing at SXSW? Did any panel even mention a PC?” His point: you live by disruption, you die by disruption. And when you invent the future, you consume the past. So lets leave the shards of RocketBoom and LonelyGirl15 and the latest Dell Laptop on the floor of that adobe cliff home, and consider what was roasting and eating the past with a side of Nokia this year, and picking its teeth with Blackberry bones.
Timothy Jordan of Google preparing his demo at SXSW
This was the year of the Wearables and the Printables. Tim Jordan demonstrated Google Glass. He talked commands to it and Siri-like, it took his dictation and acted on it. He tapped through email messages on his earpiece and sent images of the audience to Facebook. He looked up a word. He gave the salivating coders in the Audience tips on how to write a “Hello World” app and four principles for designing for Google Glass. There was a super cool video showing Pepsi-generation kids promising our eyeware will make roller coasters more fun. Continue reading →
It truly is the place where the future gets marketed to death before it’s invented. Midpoint mini-take-aways: wearable devices WAY beyond google glass are coming soon and present a huge and exciting user interface design challenge: and a social integration challenge. I love BUMP’s new ability to bump a photo or video to your Mac by tapping the spacebar with your cell phone. Grumpy Cat rules. And I’ve learned tons about African mobile devices, Digifrenia and Present shock, tips and tricks for hacking internal non-profit culture to create a more social-media friendly ecosystem, Trigger-ties as a viral engineering principle, and stuff in the Shuttle busses, lunch tables, and coffee breaks about UFO& conspiracy theory, Wal-Mart’s social media strategy, NASA’s space camp, how to build a Lego Tardis, the history of Wired’s internal split over blind optimism and “The Long Boom,” how Sierra Club is structured, the art of making a smokey martini, and a Texas tradition called “Chicken Shit Bingo.” Who knew?
This is a storified curation of most of the panels I saw at SXSW 2013, in reverse chronological order. Next time, I’m going to break these up into individual panels, and hang those on a master file of linked storified stories. It’s difficult to navigate a long piece like this by paging through until you get back to the panel you wanted. These served as notes for my wrap-up blog, Clay pots and shards of Google Glass. Continue reading →
Every year, my favorite part of SXSW is Bruce Sterling’s closing rant. Sterling is a science-fiction writer, futurist, and self-described “Design Critic for things not yet made.” Every year, I hear newbies describe his performance as “disjointed.” Well, yeah: so is the reality he’s describing. Every year, he lifts the veil of exuberant long boom techno-puppy optimism to remind us, not without kindness, of current dystopic reality and warn us about what to keep an eye on as we all skip happily down the road toward tommorrowland. Continue reading →
While reactors were melting down in Japan and protestors were being shot in the street in Libya, I was complaining about sore feet as I walked around in the crystal bubble which is SXSW (More fully South by Southwest, but pronounced “South-by” whenever said aloud). This is what SXSW Interactive founder and resident Grumpy Old Man, SciFi writer Bruce Sterling, scolds us for every year: for four days, Austin becomes the capital of the internet, and we wander the yellow brick roads between panels about The Next Big Thing, gasping at the seductive gadget-and-app bestrewn world we glimpse through a gate whose margin fades forever and forever when we move.
But the best of SXSW for me is when the boiling chaos of revolution, climate change, natural and unnatural disasters, economic hardships, and all the things we’d like to change about the world get the attention of these hyper-smart and hyper-entrepreneurial people. This is where ideas like Kiva are born, where the concept of doing well by doing good is alive and well and good. When I talk to the Google folks and hear about their genuine commitment to do something about revolutionizing energy supply (Facebook, meh, not so much. Yet) and hear a panel by some of the brightest lights in the tech world who donated three days to helping a charity figure out how to improve their online performance: that gives me hope.
I found myself this year taking notes almost exclusively with Twitter. My pal @KarinaB of Oxfam is also an obsessional quote-catcher, and I feel like I saw twice more than the conference I attended when she and I were in different panels, following one another live transcriptions.
Two apps were standout newcomers that I really used this conference: Beluga, (recently bought by Facebook) which allowed a group of us to form a “pod” and keep tabs on where the good panels were, where to meet up for drinks, how to find each other. Absolutely great for coördinating a small group. The other was Hashable, which allows you to exchange business cards and make introductions via Twitter.
So, a quick gathering of big take-home impressions: “Gamification” was the buzzword of this SXSW, with presentations about how to fix reality — from education to climate change — with the power of play, how to make games better, how to make games more coöperative, how to build games for social good. There was much homage to Gowalla, Foursquare and Farmville, and there were two keynote games that totally rocked: Seth Priebatsch’s 2 minute crowd-sourced sort of 3,000 cards and Jane McGonigal’s Massively Multi-player thumb-wrestling, both of which knocked my socks off.
The role of social media in fomenting revolution was way up there as well, with the most salient note hit by Craig Shirky when said that just as Rock and Roll was once the narrative of revolution and the language of subversion for the boomer generation, so have Facebook, Twitter, and the language of the meme come to carry the narrative of revolution in repressive regimes.
Pondering @cshirky’s #talkingcure: Social media don’t cause social change, but offer platforms to spread ideas, synchronize actions. #IUSXSW
The iPad’s power to save the magazine was much trumpeted by the Zombie Mummies… er, I mean traditional journalists of course… who every year attend panels entitled “The death of Journalism” and while Facebook, Twitter, and Blogs ran around with wooden stakes, no actual undead were harmed in the making of this conference. Though there was a whiff of garlic in the air for the “Death of Longform Journalism in a short-attention-span world.” And while I only attended remotely via Twitter stream, you can check my sources, below:
RT @mattdpearce: Good news is, as long as people want to read #longform, it’ll still exist. The bad news? Like all other industries, few …
Most useful was advice from one of the authors of “The Dragonfly Effet” along with luminaries from Microsoft Bing, Webtrends, Google, et al who teamed up for three days to create a “Hackathon” to help non-profit organisation DonorsChoose to increase traffic, conversion, and engagement via their digital channels. They recorded, wrote up, and published the process and result into a surprisingly dense and useful free PDF book: The Goodness Engine.
Most amusing: Shane Kempton’s “Steve Jobs and the rise of the Techno-Priests.” This was part history lesson, part philosophy, part epistemology: it was a survey of today’s technical landscape through the eyes of a religious historian. It started with the question, “What are Priesthoods?” Priesthoods gather the secret knowledge of the world and bring it to the people, and they decide the nature of good and evil and what shall and shall not be seen. Flash? It is an abomination unto the eyes of Steve Jobs, and shall therefore be banished from the Apple ecosystem. Bill Gates? He had a revelation, left the path of Take, Steal, Grab, and now wanders the Earth like a monk giving alms to the poor. The most amazing thing about this presentation was the graphic projection: it was a painting, done by the Shane, but which looked like a 15th century tapestry. It was like a Prezi, done by monks.
A panel featuring our own Chris Eaton focussed on digital activism, hashtag takeovers, our Nestle Kit-kat social media campaign, and our current efforts to get Facebook to Unfriend Coal. Fascinating debate broke out as PETA described their hashtag takeover of the TWTRCON feed. In protest of a NASA speaker (NASA was doing experiments irradiating chimps), they tweeted an appeal to their supporters to retweet a message which contained the conference hashtag — so everyone who was at the conference and following that tag would see it. One of the founders of TWTRCON was there and raised the issue that the action was disruptive to the tweet stream of the entire conference — a kind of collateral damage. I personally think that we as activists need to acknowledge this is an issue, and consideration given to that aspect next time. There’s times the end justifies the means, of course, but just as we don’t win friends by blocking whole roads in protest of CO2 emissions from trucks, taking over a twitter stream for a campaign has to be weighed against the aggro it may cause to folks who are not, in the end, the target of the action and may, in fact, be potential supporters that we’re alienating.
The advice she provided to those who find themselves on the pointy end of a Social Media attack:
Fight social media fire with social media water. If you’re attacked on Facebook, respond on Facebook, and calm the waters, don’t feed the flames.
Context matters. When a Social Media Fail starts, people pay attention. You need to address the whole issue, not the fragmentary comments.
Apologies matter. If you are going to apologize to your customers, you’d better mean it.
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Respect your audience, your customers, your supporters: always.
Don’t delegate a disaster. Empowered staff tweeting out is great, but when the tweets hit the fan you need official responses from official voices.
Avoid “The Streisand Effect.” The “Streisand effect” was coined when Barbara Streisand tried to get pictures of her house removed from a number of websites, and set of a storm of defiant postings. As when Nestle tried to ban the Greenpeace Kit Kat parody by ordering YouTube to take it down, the internet hates censorship, and the best way to provoke attention to something is to tell people to remove it.
While Marla didn’t specifically use Kit Kat as a case study, there was a question from the floor about it: was this a rare case where the object of the attack came out of it better? Marla’s take was that it was a zero-sum for Nestle, that they didn’t lose or gain. I raised the point that this is unfortunate, in that when a company does the right thing, as Nestle did, we do our best at Greenpeace to ensure they get credit equal to their grief: but just as the traditional media love to focus on conflict, the public attention that the #Fail got can well outstrip the attention to the dénouement.
Amazon’s social media meltdown happened over Easter — officials on holiday, no response., but social media runs 24/7 #smfail#sxsw
I’ve written up the “Has Facebook Jumped the Shark” session previously — it was one of the best panels of the conference.
Finally, check out Lori Robert’s excellent summary of “Why my phone should turn off my stove” and “Goodbye oil: accelerating the Electric Car Movment.” Both these sessions were about driving consumer behaviour toward energy efficient choices, and how we can leverage games, social media, and online activism to make that happen.
GREATMISSION: Make the transition to electric cars an inspiring collective action rather than a scary individual decision. #goodbyeoil
And finally, the presentation on “Open Government” yielded a truly unexpected prize when Nicholas Skytland presented on “The next rocket scientist: you” which focussed on participatory space exploration projects underway at NASA and among space-geeks the world over. I especially loved the Hubble Project’s crowd-sourcing of Galaxy classification at the Galaxy Zoo. But the whole presenation was great: too good not to see in its entirety over at sliderocket.
OK, that’s it. I may add to this as I continue to troll through my notes: there were dozens of other great panels that bathed my brain and fed my soul, and as ever, it’s hard to capture the experience and reproduce it.
I look forward to Bruce Sterling’s traditional closing speech at SXSW more than anything at the conference itself. It’s the only place where the heady rush toward the future is momentarily put in check, and somebody has the balls to stand up and ask us if we’ve considered where we’re heading, if we’ve had a look at where we really are, and ask why the hell we aren’t doing something to correct course.
I don’t know why I transcribe what I can of this every year. It’s available on video, my render is never accurate to his exact words, I miss getting some of the best stuff because I’m laughing too hard or wolf whistling in agreement or on my feet in anger — but I continue to do it. Somehow I find it the act of putting it down comforting — it gives me better appreciation, it anchors it in my personal history. And it provides me with a touchstone that I can go back to, once the future is written, and see how it stacks up.
(UPDATE: But it can’t beat video can it?)
Bruce Sterling declares solidarity with the Millennials
I’ve become a tradition. I’m notorious for showing up at SXSW with no graphics no powerpoint, no gamification, no apps to plug.
But I do have a user-interface designed paper notepad.
Unless you are sentimentalizing, this SXSW is better in every objective way than its predecessors. The panels were great, wasn’t a dud in the bunch. There are people here younger than the event. There are augmented reality folks here: I’m a devotee.
The road ahead is pretty clear: if you have done 5 or 6 of these events, you need to go to Europe: go to Picnic in Amsterdam, go to other tech conferences. If you run one of those conferences, fly people from here to your gig. Pay them, feed them, make them welcome. Austin has become the world-capital of the web for four days every year. I am not going to cry in my beer over the shin-digs at my house not being possible anymore. You should bathe in glory, and have a beer.
Now we come to the less pleasant part, where I get a few things off my chest.
I feel this is an audience I can level with. I think it’s important to talk about politics, which is tough because all the language of politics has been made toxic. Reduced to verbal rubble. Polarized brand management. The US has a bad case, but I’ve seen worse.
I want to talk about politics from the point of view of a design critic. I design things that don’t exist yet — with one foot in reality, one in fantasy.
I spend a lot of time collecting cool techno-political ideas, like Government 2.0. Open Democracy.
But it’s not enough to have a lot of ideas.
What it’s about is passionate virtuosity. Find someone who is capable of higher than average performance. In a writer’s career, you have early wild rebels setting fire to stuff with youthful fervor but not a lot of technical skill. At the end of their career they’ve mastered the art, found a comfortable armchair and sit there making wisecracks about youth. Somewhere in between, they peak in both passion and virtuosity.
Politically, in our society, we don’t have any passionate virtuosity. In fact, you need to come up with a term to describe the opposite: disgusted incompetence would probably be better.
I want to talk about Dr. Craig Venter. I went to Washington to talk about the policy consequences of Dr. Venter’s work. What I want to ask is why the guy was here. What benefit did he expect to gain. He’s here because he is trying to reframe 20th century genetic engineering as 21st century synthetic biology.
He started a project called iGen which is a high school science project on the web in which teenage genetic engineers combine synthetic DNA into new organisms. It’s a brilliant end run around the opposition to genetic engineering which you face, e.g. in Europe, where GMOs are synonymous with Frankenfoods.
I remember the fight over GMOs. Then you look at the reaction to synthetic biology and it’s terrible. Microbes are not baby seals. No hippy will ever show up to stop you messing with them. “They’re too small to see, they must not matter” Synthia, the new bacteria that they’ve created, has already replicated billions of times. And of course they want heaps of them. And he’s got Exxon-mobil putting 600 million dollars into more research.
ExxonMobil is the personification of corporate evil if any corporate board should be in prison for crimes against humanity it’s them.
Malefactors and visionary in alliance. Blood will be on their hands, and on the hands of their brethren on K Street. Just look at HBGary. Look at heaps of sock puppets going after climate change and denying it because it pays well.
Oils skyrocketing in price and two nukes melt down. Texas has great wind power and nobody talks about it. Why not take it to the streets Madison style and paralyze Austin with energy demands?
Let J.CRaig be J.Craig. He uses your hacker chops, and your digital media to get your support for his alien technology. Because he’s willing to win ugly.
I was in Google’s lobby HQ in Washington. I watched people discussint potential implications of this thing. And it was pathetic. A 15 year old kid from Cairo could have kicked them to the curb. Had there been a fire they would have published a white paper.
I want to talk about something worse: Italian politics.
Rubygate is a sign of political corruption and flaccidity. This is the walking mummy stalking your future. Berlusconi is the functional equivalent of the owner of Fox news, except he owns all of Italian media. His wife left him for his infidelities because he was a lip-smacking skirt chaser. But then his 90 year old mother died, who apparently had been his moral compass, and he picked up a harem and set up favor networks and placed them in politics and bought them homes and got invovled with an underage belly dancer who robs the apartments of her friends and he bailed her out in this incredible Caligula soap opera: imagine a dozen Monica Lewinski’s. This is a guy with an army, and a navy, and a cabinet.
The women of Italy were naturally upset, took to the streets in their normally silent multitudes and said we are your sisters, your wives, your mothers, why is this man allowed to lead us. To which the men said, it’s about money. Proving Italy has become a bit like Berlusconi’s special harem, and have become used to the little favors he grants them.
Italy is a brothel. And Washington DC is a Wal-Mart of a brothel.
People vote for the party of common sense, the GOP, and yet every other person on the planet who is not American can’t believe it. It’s madness to EVERYONE outside the range of Fox news.
In Berlusconi’s Italy evil is communist feminist lawyers trying to prosecute him for harmless soirees.
In the US it’s teachers in Wisconsin.
And then there’s the Catholic church. It’s two millennia old, and if I blow a little dust on them they’re not gonna wrinkle up. It’s a shocking display of Jesuitical cynicism that they’re not calling for Berlusconi’s head. But he’s gonna support the legislation we want, so we’ll make a devil’s bargain. Where is the moral compass of these people? Do they think it will make the pedophile stories look better?
And the population sit on the couch and play video games, and get more and more obese.
Imagine if the statue of liberty was clocking in around 350 pounds, with a Wii exercise bat instead of a torch. It brings out our inner Bill Hicks.
And if Bill Hicks is looking down on Texas now he’s scolding you worse than me.
What worries me are the things that require focussed attention and passionate virtuousity. Like Earthquake disaster relief. In Italy, L’aquila is still a mess. For us it was the BP oil spill. The government did nothing. Suppose it was 10 times worse, do you think there’s another government that would do more. Who will save us from BP? They’re incapable of rapid compassionate action. A Vampire geezer instead of a President. Wikileaks has more political clout than the pentagon and the State Department combined.
It’s like gothic torpor in a coffin of earth, with the only official act that government has become capable of is reassurances. The Soviets were great at maintaining the pretense that all was well.
Who suffers when your society is incapable of focussed action or genuine innovation? The youth. We have a geritocracy. The old outnumber the young in Italy and the developed world. The reason Egypt worked was because the young got out in the streets and outnumbered the old.
I declare my solidarity with the millennials. Boomers shut the hell up. What’s left of the civil rights you campaigned for? Nice job getting rid of totalitarianism, but get out of the way now.
Stop clinging to your entitlements. You’re turning into Miss Havisham, with cobwebs on your wedding cake. Who is going to provide your entitlements, your retirement? You are sucking the blood of your children. Like Edward in Twilight, 110 years old and still hanging out in high school hittin on a mormon teen no wonder this is the parable of your time — get the heck out of here.
What you need is a global youth movement. General strike. See if they’ll flip their own burgers. Get a mayor under 30– withdraw from places that are top-heavy with over thirties. You guys are the army and cops.
Days of rage, baby.
Be realistic–demand the impossible. Up against the wall.
I usually like to end with a poem, because I am secretly keen on poetry and like to have an audience that can’t escape. But let’s try a couple quotes from Garibaldi, a terrible novelist but a great general, and a great maker of battle speeches:
“I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor food; I offer only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death.”
And people went for that. And if you don’t stand up, millennials, that’s what you are going to get, so you might as well man up.
“Women of Italy, cast away the cowards from your embraces”
Now the only reason SXSW looks like a new order is because women now attend, and it looks less like a fringe club for eccentrics.
Women of SXSW — do not embrace a coward.
Another world is inevitable. The future is unwritten.
I'm Brian Fitzgerald and this is my personal blog. I'm a digital rabblerouser at Greenpeace, where I've worked and volunteered for 30+ years, allowing me to combine my love of technology, globally people-powered trouble-making, hippy do-goodery, and boats.
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