Broken Clay Pottery and Shards of Google Glass: SXSW 2013

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.

But there were two dis­so­nant notes. One was a hard ques­tion from the floor: “This is world chang­ing hard­ware. I don’t want a new way to send crap to social media, tell us the amaz­ing thing this will enable that we can’t do with our phones.” Ouch. There real­ly wasn’t an answer. The sec­ond came from Ster­ling, who asked what would Evil Glass look like? He said it was easy, just reverse Tim Jordan’s prin­ci­ple: load glass with soft­ware not made for glass. Have it do unpred­i­cat­able things. Have it get in the user’s way and deliv­er con­tent that is what you want to give them instead of what they need in the moment. “Bas­cial­ly what you have now with Android…” Chuck­les. But this is pre­cise­ly the kind of envi­ron­ment in which you real­ly may want the walled gar­den that Apple puts around inter­face devel­op­ment. Glass futures down in slight­ly in heavy trad­ing, would be my cool-o-meter read.

Doesn’t look elec­tron­ic does it? That Body Suit records move­ment.

Up, how­ev­er, were some of the oth­er wear­ables we saw. The Pilates suit that records your ses­sions and plays them back with tips. The jack­et with the audio vol­ume con­trol built into the zip­per. (Using “Nat­u­ral gar­ment inter­ac­tions as user inter­face” in geek-speak)
The­se are NOT the wear­ables you’re look­ing for… Move along.

Shoes that talk to you through your iPhone and nag you to take the stairs, be more active, don’t slouch. Shoes (why so many shoes?) equipped with GPS sen­sors and red and green lights, so you can know whether your Maps-pro­grammed route requires you to go left or right. As if the world need­ed more nerds look­ing at their shoes. A cou­ple of guys were show­ing off brain-wave sens­ing equip­ment that pow­ered a pair of ears. They were quirky car­toons, down when sad and up when hap­py, but as pro­to­types of Mood Rings 2.0 they were har­bin­gers of poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing things.

There was the Mem­o­to Cam­era which snaps every 30 sec­onds a record of your life. For a dystopic view of where all this abil­i­ty to record and play back your life expe­ri­ences is going, see Char­lie Brooker’s Black Mir­ror Episode “The Entire His­to­ry of You.” Actu­al­ly, scratch that. Just see every sin­gle episode: it’s a dark Twi­light Zone for the age of Twit­ter.

And then there were the print­a­bles. A firm at the trade show had a mod­el for a print­a­bles cafe — just as inter­net cafes once took an unaf­ford­able ser­vice and let you vis­it to use it, print­a­bles cafes would host a 3D print­er. You bring your own design, and over­caf­feinate while it takes twen­ty min­utes to print out a bracelet, or a pros­thet­ic nose you designed for your Hal­loween cos­tume, a non-legal Lego brick, or a gun. Wait. A GUN? Yes. Already the tec­ton­ic plates of what tech can do and what we think we shouldn’t do are slid­ing again­st each oth­er in the print­a­bles world, as Maker­Bot, biggest host of 3D print­er designs, bans firearm pat­terns from sale, only to spawn the inevitable rival site which sea “Do what you will shall be the whole law.”

Lawyers will cer­tain­ly be pick­ing at the corpse of that argu­ment soon.

DOWNLOADED from Trouper on Vimeo.

Nap­ster was cel­e­brat­ed as the soft­ware that sin­gle­hand­ed­ly brought com­mu­ni­ty and shar­ing to the inter­net and ush­ered in a Dig­i­tal Rev­o­lu­tion that won’t go back in the bag. Check out Down­load­ed, Alex Winter’s doc­u­men­tary of Shawn & Sean’s Excel­lent Adven­ture, which begins with the squawk of modem and ends with a thun­der­clap. Except that it actu­al­ly ends with a cheesy song. Sor­ry. But it does a great job of remind­ing us what a com­plete and utter dis­rup­tion Nap­ster was to so many things, and how it lives on in iTunes, in Tor­rent archi­tec­tures, at Spo­ti­fy and dozen oth­er trib­u­taries cut from the path a lone kid in a clos­et (not a metaphor, he lived in a clos­et) cut through the under­growth of the offi­cial inter­net with machete and loin­cloth. John Per­ry Bar­low bemoaned an indus­try reac­tion that, instead of embrac­ing the change, declared an entire gen­er­a­tion crim­i­nals. “We teach obe­di­ence in our schools,” Ster­ling chimed in lat­er “when we ought to be cel­e­brat­ing dis­obe­di­ence.”

And what’s new in the land of com­merce? Seth Priebatsch was run­ning around per­son­al­ly set­ting up pro­mo mate­ri­als for a pay­ment sys­tem called “Lev­el Up.”


Will it catch on? In 6 days, I didn’t see any­one use it except me, but Baris­tas did report “Lots of peo­ple” using it. Seth? Did you bribe the­se peo­ple with cool stuff? But seri­ous­ly, it’s a breeze to use. Asso­ciate your account with a cred­it card, hold your phone up to the scan­ner and the QR Code does its mag­ic. Faster than cash, faster than card. Of course, it’s a new rea­son to ensure your phone is pass­word locked. But what turned my head and makes me hope this one suc­ceeds is a qui­et lit­tle but­ton in the set­tings: “Donate my sav­ings to a cause.” The app comes with a slid­er that lets you say you’re going to give any­where from 5–100% of every­thing you save with the app in dis­counts and pro­mo­tions to a char­i­ty of your choice, from A Bed For Every Child to the Nation­al Wildlife Fed­er­a­tion to Fair Trade USA and a dozen in between. It’s an amaz­ing­ly easy way to donate, and you can con­stant­ly adjust your giv­ing port­fo­lio.

The provoca­tive­ly enti­tled “David over Goliath: Pow­er of the Shar­ing Econ­o­my” chart­ed the rise of inci­den­tal income sites: Etsy, RideShare, and a dozen oth­er ways you can mon­e­tize any­thing from your home-knit­ted organ­ic wool jumpers to idle cycles on your car or your couch.

Dou­glas Rushkoff was full of cau­tion­ary tales of what tech­nol­o­gy is doing to the way we think: the increas­ing eye con­tact we give to our phones pro­duc­ing a col­lec­tive Asperg­ers syn­drome in which we’re regress­ing in our abil­i­ty to human­ly inter­act. The imme­di­a­cy of our com­mu­ni­ca­tions medi­ums and the val­ue we put on speed has essen­tial­ly dimin­ished the impor­tance of any­thing that isn’t hap­pen­ing RIGHT NOW. It’s the shift from “The long now” to the “short forever” in which expe­ri­ence is sliced into tweets and small­er frac­tals from which we draw inac­cu­rate pat­terns of impor­tance. He dropped the phrase “Digifre­nia:” the prob­lem is not too much infor­ma­tion, it’s mul­ti­ple instances of our­selves oper­at­ing across mul­ti­ple social inter­ac­tive plat­forms in ways that we have a hard time con­trol­ling. He wor­ries this crip­ples our abil­i­ty to look at long time frames: we flee to Zom­bie fic­tions because they’re less scary than what’s actu­al­ly com­ing. The days of coop­er­a­tive effort across decades toward a moon land­ing have given away to match-head flare “now-now-now-focussed” move­ments like the Tea Par­ty and Occu­py. He calls the whole thing “Present Shock.”

Aman­da Palmer talked about what it was like to launch a record entire­ly on Kick­starter, rais­ing 1.2 mil­lion dol­lars from 23,000 fans, and ensur­ing that every­one of them had it in their hands before Best-Buy did. If you’ve not seen her Ted Talk on the Art of Ask­ing, for­get read­ing this sec­ond­hand dri­v­el and just watch:

Aman­da Palmer tweets like crazy. Per­son­al, inti­mate, fan-con­ver­sa­tion­al stuff. Among the top 100 tweet­ers in terms of fol­low­ers, only the New York Times tweets more. But com­pared to Lady Gaga or Justin Beiber, she’s got a tiny fol­low­ing, not even a mil­lion peo­ple. But what she’s got from those fans is engage­ment big time. They pro­mote, they vol­un­teer, they cel­e­brate the artist in their mid­st (not the celebri­ty on stage) who asks and list­ed to them about things like Health Insur­ance. In order to run a fan-cen­tric sys­tem, she’s large­ly had to rein­vent a mod­el that record labels wouldn’t sup­port (“Why would you want us to put up a fan con­tent web­site when you’re not launch­ing an album right now?”)

Rachel Mad­dow put in a ques­tion about why the US Mil­i­tary con­tin­ues to drag the bat­tle rat­tle of defunct pro­grammes like nuclear weapons along into its future. Not a paci­fist, she asks why pro­grammes to fix mis­sile sys­tems that are being used in cur­rent wars have to com­pete with fund­ing to remove mold from the lead­ing edge of Cruise mis­sile wings and to fund Mis­silers who look after silos in the most dead-end car­reer path the mil­i­tary offers. 

Beth Kan­ter and a team of non-prof­it social media man­agers swapped secrets on hack­ing inter­nal cul­ture at change­mak­er organ­i­sa­tions to make them more social, and more data dri­ven. I’d tell you about them, but they are secrets. (See the Stori­fy)

And there was the Aaron Swartz town hall, which cel­e­brat­ed the life and work of the inter­net free­dom activist and Red­dit founder who took his own life after the US Gov­ern­ment decid­ed to hound him with pros­e­cu­tion in a way they don’t hound, for instance, bank­ing crim­i­nals. Their intent was to dis­cour­age peo­ple from lib­er­at­ing schol­ar­ship which the pub­lic has paid for and putting it out there in the inter­na­tion­al waters of the inter­net with­out pay­walls. I’d say that judg­ing by the size of the crowd and the pas­sion for con­tin­u­ing Aaron’s fight, they’ve failed. I’d say that judg­ing by the size of the crowd and the pas­sion for con­tin­u­ing Aaron’s fight, they’ve no only failed, they’ve fanned the flames of that cause. Taren Stine­brick­n­er-Kauff­man, who joined Green­peace for the 2011 Mobil­i­sa­tion Skill share, was Aaron’s part­ner, and gave a mov­ing chal­lenge to law­mak­ers, edu­ca­tors, and to us, the change­mak­ers. As one who believes in Aaron’s famous quote that “The Rev­o­lu­tion will be A/B test­ed” she gave us this: “There’s no shame in fail­ure. If you as change­mak­ers can’t name your fail­ures, you’re either not being hon­est or you’re not aim­ing high enough. Where there IS shame is in car­ing more about believ­ing you are chang­ing the world than actu­al­ly chang­ing the world.” And she asked that we all be good to each oth­er: the thing Aaron got wrong was remem­ber­ing to stay sus­tain­able.

The meme that won SXSW was Grumpy Cat, who was there for one day accept­ing vis­i­tors who wait­ed hours in line in the rain for the chance to kiss her paw and swear feal­ty while her con­siglieri shut the door in Nyan Cat’s sob­bing puss.

Hel­lo, my name is Creepy and I come from Uncan­ny Val­ley

There was a talk­ing holo­gram from 3M that inhab­it­ed “uncan­ny val­ley” — the place where some­thing looks you in the eye like a human, and straight past you, giv­ing you that creepy feel­ing that you’re talk­ing to the undead.

Much more fun were the­se robot­ic units, con­trolled from Palo Alto, with video images you could talk to just like a real per­son, but which were rolling around on slight­ly funky upright vac­u­um clean­er units. They were Awe­some even before they danced with the Stay Puff Marsh­mal­low Astro­naut.

As ever, there was way more than can be con­veyed in a dying for­mat such as this blog, way more that I didn’t see and will be gath­er­ing tweets and links about over the com­ing days and kick­ing myself for choos­ing one insane­ly great pan­el over three oth­er insane­ly great pan­els. But I’m tired, you’re tired, the cli­mate is chang­ing and it’s time to start the bar­be­cue. If you’re still hun­gry, I Stori­fied every­thing I saw and a few things I didn’t, here.

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