by Joshua Heller
SXSW Interactive is the convergence of utopian techno-futurism and base primitivism. Men hold screens in front of their faces as they ride down escalators. These devices work the best that they ever have. Instead of Tweeting into a void, they’re communicating with people on the other side of the convention center. People use their location-based applications to tell friends which bars they’re at. Women that meet in passing can follow each others Tweets and reunite an hour later, better-informed. These technologies are working exactly the way their developers say they should. Human beings connect to one another.
But Austin during SXSW is not a good test-case for “real world application.” A restaurant in Austin can be “trending” with 225 people checking-in. Right now in Los Angeles, you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant within five miles that has two check-ins.
Here the online world is your real world. And it goes both ways: here you actually become friends with online comrades, away, for a moment, from the keyboard.
There are lots of people who have specific purposes for being in Austin. Representing a brand. Promoting an app. Finding investors for their start-up. These people use their corporate cultures to attend events strategically: “This specific Venture Capitalist will be at X party at Y time!” And they’ll keep a calendar to maximize their time, and hand out the most business cards.
But those visiting Austin without expense accounts or immediate deadlines wander SXSW with no real idea where to go. Since we have no structure telling us what we should do, and there are too many events going on (and my SXSW app doesn’t work), we travel by our basic human desires.
I have become a hunter gatherer, mostly using technology instead of eyeballs. “Where can I get free food? Where can I take a shit? Where can I become intoxicated at no charge?”
Once you’re guided by base desires, you don’t worry where you’re going, or the context of the place. You just follow your social media applications toward free hot dogs and unlimited “organic margaritas.”
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I left the press suite to upgrade from cold breakfast tacos to beers and grilled cheese. A friend heard about “beer and brats” sponsored by Miller. We shared stories about being preyed on by the Hipster Grifter because of our immaculate beards. I went to a “trailer park” sponsored by Hewlett Packard for sour gummy worms. (Trailer park = “a pop-up experience that houses a community of creative influencers.”) I went to Cracked.com’s party for artisanal empanadas and cocktails. Many of these complimentary items were fertilized by the blood of Demand Media content farmers.
But you cannot have a conscience when you are looking to satisfy your needs. You should however at least wonder how long you can survive on booze and food that’s all the same color.
Previously: In Austin, Tweeting is Currency