Context-Removal Machine: SXSW 2010

March 20th, 2010 | Category: Reviews

Having never been and having skipped the bedlam of SXSW last year (the first since I moved to Austin), I decided I’d jump in with both feet this year. I registered for the Interactive side and just hoped my music friends could take care of me on the Music side. Nine days straight of exhausting good times: I was not disappointed.

At early registration on Thursday, I finally met Bruce Sterling IRL. More on him in a minute. On day two, I had a brief but great chat with Doug Rushkoff on his way out of the building and the conference. I hadn’t seen him in about seven years, and he’s still fighting the good fight on all fronts. Inspiration is found on the fringes.

RT @hoovers: Top 3 SXSW takeaways: 1. sidebar conversations are better than (most) panels, 2. execution trumps ideas, 3. data has awesome power. [2:22 PM Mar 17th]

One of the few panels I did attend was The Future 15 on “Celebrity, Microcelebrity, and the Future of Internet Fame” with old friend Alice Marwick, Know Your Meme‘s Kenyatta Cheese, and KW Low of Dread Central. These three tackled three aspects of the topic with solid research and a comfortably informal feel. The problem came during Q&A when everyone who stepped on the mic seem to think they should’ve been on the panel. Instead of good dialog, all we got was micropresentations and plugs for lame web shit. It was annoying, and almost enough to make one never want to got to another panel “discussion.”

Almost the complete opposite of that experience was the long night out I spent talking with Stuart Candy of The Long Now Foundation. Finding out that I’m here in Austin, Stuart contacted me out of the blue, and we hashed through tons and tons of information, issues, and possibilities over many a Fireman’s #4. This is where the real work gets done at conferences.

As usual, Dave Allen and I have been thinking along similar lines. Our current beef is with a seemingly chronic lack of context. In large part, conferences, panels, Twitter, photography… All of these are context-removers. Foursquare is stupid. As Jaron Lanier put it, “Dignity is the opposite of realtime.” Late night discussions over many days put things back into perspective. We had these with way-too-enthusiastic young technophiles who are “about to revolutionize the music industry” and seasoned music/technology professionals (e.g., Paul D. Miller a.k.a. DJ Spooky, Sloane Kelley of BFG Communications and founder of Geekend 2010, Frosty from HP, photographer John Pesina, writer Tom Samiljan, Jeff Newelt a.k.a. Jah Furry, et al.). The mix of people is what makes these events valuable. It’s so rarely about the events themselves.

The benevolent presence of Bruce Sterling has always hung heavy over SXSWi, and his closing remarks proved why. Bruce “gets it,” and I mean he gets it from a space-shuttle eye and a long view. He pointed out that the musicians are leading the way for everyone — authors, engineers, academics, everyone, not just creatives. We are de-monetizing everything. If we had free, open-sourced food and shelter instead of music and software, none of this would be a problem, he said, adding “Who’s on top of the game now? No one! The game’s on top of us!” It was as sobering as it was inspiring.

On Tuesday, SXSW changed hands. The geeks who were in town for SXSWi clogged the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport fleeing the scene, while the musicians clogged it coming in (Film was going on around the same time, but I was overwhelmed as it was). I continued my run with Dave Allen in tow (truth be told, I was following him), as music was to consume us for the next few days. We saw a few bad bands, but we saw a lot of good ones.

On Wednesday night, I skipped Motorhead’s free show to finally see local indie powerhouse Ume. Dave’s been on and on about them since last SXSW, and for good reason. These three slay venues wholesale. Rhythm section Jeff and Eric undulate the earth while guitarist and singer Lauren sets it on fire. Their power is undeniable and their songs stick in your head like bullets. They’re also three of the nicest, coolest, most fun people you could ever meet.

Dave and I also stumbled upon a building-razing show by Band of Skulls, the sweet, sultry sounds of Via Tania, a mid-day scorcher by Warpaint, and while backstage at the GZA show, which also rocked, I met Bill Ghost-Bustin’-ass Murray! What else is there to say about that?

Walking around downtown Austin during SXSW, one overhears at least one conversation a day that has to do with exactly what the hell day it is. No one can keep up. If you can, you’re doing it wrong.

Further Posting:


  • Matt said:

    I enjoyed our too-brief hangout session at the SXSW. I got a little sunburn on my bald head. Too bad I had to go before getting to meet Bill Murray.

    I wasn’t around for any other part of SXSW, and I didn’t hear Bruce Sterling’s speech. But based only on what I read here, I gotta say it sounds like unworkable hippie BS. There is a fundamental difference between the arts and all other industries, which is that musicians and other artists are driven to create (or at least be blatantly derivative & lie to themselves that they’re creating) with mostly non-monetary motives. Self-expression, maybe recognition and fame being the obvious ones. Money and the industry itself are really byproducts of the drive people have to express themselves. (And I’m not even sure that what happened to music is so great. Sure many of the corporate leeches have been shaken away, but so have too many cool indie record store owners.)

    Back to my point about this being hippie BS. The problem with Bruce’s idea is that people in non-artistic industries do not have the same motivations. The people out there in just about every other endeavor – repairing cars, building houses, growing crops, making pizzas, sweeping chimneys, giving massages of questionable legality – who would keep doing it for no money, purely for self-expression and recognition, have to be so miniscule in number as to be virtually nonexistent.

    So then what happens if Bruce’s BS hippie ideas start to manifest? At first, yes, there would be a euphoric “screw the man!” period, where everyone gets everything free. Everyone gets a free house, everyone gets free food, everyone gets free cars, etc. That would be awesome. So then what? The supply of what was already out there has dried up. People are still going to need new stuff. How are we going to get that stuff to continue to be produced without any economic incentive? Because unlike the rock band who will happily write a new song even if it never makes a dime, a farmer isn’t going to invest the large amounts of time and money needed to produce food if he’s not going to make money out of it. Same goes for construction companies, doctors, custom surfboard makers, whatever. Without countermeasures being taken, there will be a universal “screw this” and no goods or services will ever get produced, because why bother if you’re not going to get paid? Might as well save the time & money & headache and do nothing for the same result.

    So what would those countermeasures have to be? I can think of 2 options, and both of them would serve to INCREASE, not decrease “the man”‘s involvement and control: (1) gov’t subsidies of everything – which may or may not be combined with laws telling people they pretty much have to keep producing; or (2) the gov’t takes over all industries, farms, construction, etc., kinda Soviet style or something. The first option fails because subsidies always come with strings attached (i.e. lots of gov’t control). Done on the large scale Bruce seems to contemplate, they would require massive taxation to fund them, which would be another form of government control. This system would be unsustainable because all the former revenue generators would become revenue recipients, so where’s the tax base going to be? The other option – the government takes over all industries – is the ultimate situation where “the man” is in control. As history and human nature dictate, what inevitably happens there is that everyone gets equal – but miniscule – portions of free stuff while those in power make exceptions for themselves & their friends and family. Hopefully little else needs to be said.

    For all the talk these days about sustainable environmental policies, much more immediately important is consideration of sustainable economic policies. Sadly, this never seems to be a priority when discussions turn towards an everyone-gets-everything-free “utopian” situation. Sounds great on the surface (to some), but it just. can. not. work. And if any hippie gives me the ol’ “well, if everyone would just…(insert selfless act here)” argument, I’ll kick him right through the internet. Everyone will not just. A few deluded gullible hippies might, but nobody else will, and things will quickly deteriorate.

    Bruce may have a long view, but it seems to be a narrow one – a telescope that focuses only on one pretty spot.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Good to see you that bleary day, Matt. The whole week and a half is kind of a blur.

    Without sounding dismissive, I want to say that you illustrated my point. If you’d heard Bruce’s presentation in full, perhaps you’d still feel the same way. Maybe those ideas can’t be taken another way, but I didn’t get the same impression you’ve expressed here, not that I disagree with you in the least. That was kind of the complaint that Dave and I kept returning to about SXSW Interactive: sever lack of context — and more tools to remove it further. Twitter? All comments, no story. It’s not even sound-bites. It’s less. Foursquare? The worst of Twitter all in one place. Thanks, Web 2.0!

    With that said, I think you’ll dig that Band of Skulls stuff. They kicked all kinds of ass live.

  • Matt said:

    Sorry to get all uncool and heavy. I get that I may have misinterpreted things, since I admittedly wasn’t there. It’s just a neverending source of frustration for me that utopian schemes always seem to ignore human nature & motivations, so that in practice the unnatural altruistic behaviors required for success have to be imposed on folks through force of law, usually in a scary way.

    But enough beating that dead Shetland pony. On the context tip – I submit that removing context can be a damn good way to get to the truth. A skilled stage magician is a good metaphor for what I’m talking about. With context (watching their act) you’d swear that they made the Whatever disappear, and it was an incredible, awesome moment for everyone. Without context, maybe meaning a tight camera closeup, you’d see that he simply palmed it then stuck it in his pocket. Removing context can kill the influence of speaker charisma & oratory skill – or anything else which serves as chaff or mud for the waters – and allow the essential facts to emerge undisguised and unminimized.

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