Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece included quotes attributed to several people attending the conference. The quotes have been removed because we could not confirm that they were accurate or that we had authorization to publish them in this piece.
The session on social media and grassroots activism in the Middle East started to wind down at SXSW on Sunday. At the end, the moderator announced, “We’d like to thank 5-Hour Energy for sponsoring this session.” Only then did I notice that taped to each of the 200 chairs in the room was a bottle of 5-Hour Energy.
The corporate influence at South by Southwest is everywhere. In a span of less than 100 feet along the main corridor of the convention center, one is greeted by advertisements for American Airlines (which sponsors fashionable cell phone charging lockers), a two-dimensional pseudo-hologram from 3M (“3M encourages employees to pursue social responsibility”), a shining steel steering column from Esurance (“insurance for the modern world”), and a still-in-progress Chevrolet exhibit complete with tablets with Instagram logos (“#FindNewRoads”).
Another paradox at SXSW is the deeply conflicted attitude towards technology. Former vice president Al Gore addressed this on Saturday afternoon. He spoke about the “stalker economy” in which big companies monitor our behavior, installing cookies on our computers when we visit their Web sites, showing us targeted ads and selling our data to the highest bidder. He also spoke with surprising passion about spider goats — goats spliced with genetic material from spiders that secreted spider silk in their milk.
“That’s creepy,” he said, “and I’m not sure people would be okay with that.”
Clay Johnson, author of “The Information Diet,” delivered a talk about how we were being inundated with junk information that was corrupting our minds. “My phone used to beep every few seconds, all day, interrupting my life to force me to look at some advertisement,” he said. “Then I turned all notifications off. Now it beeps only when my wife calls.”
Freud was once asked if he was grateful for the telephone, which allowed him to communicate with his son who had moved away from home. “It was because of the technology of the railroad that he was able to move away in the first place,” he responded. Philosophers such as Sherry Turkle and William Dereciewicz have pointed out this irony in the domain of personal relationships, where technologies that exist to make us more connected leave us more alone.
Even SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk, who delivered the keynote address on Saturday afternoon to a packed hall of over 5,000 ecstatic fans, has devoted his career to initiatives — solar energy, electric-powered cars, and space exploration — that are societal imperatives solely because of the destructive effects of previous technologies.
At times, the ironies border on the schizophrenic. For example, there are dozens of sessions on big data and predictive analytics in the schedule, their titles spanning the spectrum from “Big Data Democracy” to “Is Big Data Killing Creativity?”
Representatives from the ACLU and the EFF speak about protecting privacy. Meanwhile, SXSW attendees are vigilantly tracked throughout the conference, the QR codes on our badges scanned before entering every session, attendees forced to RSVP for dozens of parties every night, prodded to enter sweepstakes for Oreos, Doritos, and Monster Energy Drink.
Even the basic norms of social behavior are controversial. Everyone is always on their phones here, while attending sessions, while walking around downtown, and while at parties. Some argue that this represents the peak of technological refinement, while others mock the frenetic inability of the always connected to form genuine connections.
I heard numerous comparisons made between SXSW and Burning Man over the past few days — both events draw from similar pools of yuppie / hipster types, after all, and struggle with the tension of being at the intersection of counter-culture and mainstream.
The most amusing one I overheard was from a bearded hipster in a hallway who said, “This is just like Burning Man! I walk around here, and I’m like, wow, I don’t hate these people.”
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