On Friday, March 11th I participated in the SXSW Interactive panel “Folkways These Days: Crafty Knowledge in Digital Networks.” Our panel mutated several times before the actual presentation came around. Originally, we had Magda Sayeg, the Austin Yarn Bomber on the panel, but she had to drop out because of a planned trip to Argentina. Then, we tried to get printmakers Lana Lambert and Julia Farrill on the panel. Unfortunately, Lana couldn’t make the trip from Virginia, and for Julia the date of SXSW was too close to the due date of her first child. So, we invited Collin Farill, an industrial designer with his own firm and Julia’s husband, to join us. Meanwhile, Magda’s trip fell through and she rejoined the panel. The day before our panel, Collin emailed to let me know that he couldn’t make it, because the Farill baby was on the way (Congrats, Collin and Julia, but really, you couldn’t get little Oriana to wait until after SXSW?!)
So, the panel ended up being comprised of Will Burdette, Ryan McKerley, Magda Sayeg, and myself, and we presented in that order on the panel.
Will Burdette kicked off the panel with “Folkways, These Days: New Audio Folkways,” an examination of sound folkways, the ways in which sound moves digitally. My favorite part of his presentation came when Will praised the villainous RIAA, in service of a canny rhetorical point, for forcing people–through its lawsuits–to rethink how music is created and shared. A slightly expanded version of his presentation is available here through Vimeo.
Next, potter Ryan McKerley talked about how his own work and the work of some potter friends of his. Ryan doesn’t seem to think that digital networking fundamentally changes how he or his fellow potters execute their work, but is more important of a consideration for the purposes of distribution. For me the most fascinating moment in his presentation was when he talked about a pottery forger on Etsy who boldly, and in much lower quality, copied the work of one of McKerley’s friends–essentially a case of pottery plagiarism, which I think raises some fascinating issues about intellectual rights/writes, and textuality.
Batting cleanup, more or less, was Magda Sayeg, the rockstar of our panel, founder of Knitta Please, and known globally as the Austin Yarn Bomber. Our panel probably got an additional boost attendance-wise because Magda yarn bombed the SXSW Interactive green room, to much hype. Magda talked about how the internet has propelled her own public art, by giving it broader venue with audiences and also bringing her art to the attention of distant audiences who have then commissioned her to create additional pieces. Such digital distribution of images of her in-place art bombings have also inspired copycat yarn bombers, much to Magda’s delight.
I ended the formal portion of the panel with my own brief talk “Networks in Place: When Fiber Optics Hit the Gravel Road.” I spoke mainly about longstanding but unremediated problems of digital divide and lack of digital access in rural America. I also talked about how digital access, both the lack of it, but also inevitably to-arrive access, affects rural traditions, which have developed in distinct ways largely because of cultural isolation.
By far the best part of the panel, or most exciting at least, I thought, was the question-and-answer period, about the last twenty minutes. Our audience had fascinating questions and comments, and we did our best to contribute meaningful responses.
Full audio of the hour-long panel session can be found here, though I’m not sure that it makes much sense since all four presenters were relying heavily on visuals that are not included in the audio-only recording.
Our panel even received a little bit of press (I’ll add links as I track them down):
Austin Chronicle Reportage.
“By definition, nothing imagined by the human mind is obscene.”
–Justice Hugo Black, roughly remembered and more roughly paraphrased
SXSW Interactive has this year performed a zoological miracle that no one would ever have anticipated from the world famous technology conference, simultaneously managing to both jump the shark and fuck the dog. And it is the simultaneity of those two acts that truly impresses. (Yes, I know that the shark was really a car, but this is as far as the bestial metaphor goes, so rest it.)
The panels disappoint. It is a carousel of Facebook and Twitter imitations, but smaller and for specialized communities. Unimaginative and disappointing and saddening. At a journalism panel there is much talk about monetizing and leveraging social media. I answer email. One panelist gloats about how she has gone back into the streets to conduct her journalism. We’re supposed to be impressed? Where were you before? No wonder 5,000 Americans died in Iraq–you reported the war from a newsroom, you lazy punk. In fact, every panel on “The Future of Journalism” convinces me that there will be no journalists in the future. The ones we have now are clearly a stunted and stupid breed. We can only pray for an evolutionary mutation. They can’t turn their 20th Century hulks around–better to burn them back down to the timbers and start fresh, it seems clear.
The silver lining is the yarnbomber, who is on our panel. She is happy and vibrant and creative, and, goddamn it, she makes things. This cheers us all, and she deservedly brings with her a fanbase. In the green room her playful knitting covered yoga balls are a physical and psychological comfort. Somebody still has ideas, and she’s one of the few, and it is good to see that this year she is already a darling of the conference, and we are grateful that she is on our panel and feel lucky for having invited her. It is a highlight, to be sure.
On the second day I retreat to the Hill Country and dine on the flesh of at least four animals, in a variety of cuts. As we walk by the river afterwards I consider raising a cowboy posse to stomp on the throats of the tragically jacked-in conference attendees. “It won’t take long,” I’ll tell the cowboy leader. “We’ll be doing a service. For the greater good. It will be fun and it will make us friends and we’ll laugh at the memory of it for years.” If he balks, I’ll offer to let him drive the rented Mustang back to Austin. Of a different kind of balking, all of this would be less bad if opening day weren’t still three weeks away. Baseball rights the tilt of the globe after it spends six months wobbling. But I give up on the posse–like the fanboys with their clammy hands and bike courier bags, I am more of a thinker than a doer. Back to the Lavender City, as O Henry called it.
Night descends on the conference and the city. The neon flickers. I wander the streets of downtown.
Hours later, scrawny nerdkingoverlords gilled up on overwarm beer trip over a bar’s threshold and out into the street entangled. They’re fighting. In a rarity, Austin’s neck-tattooed and former Longhorn football bouncers don’t intervene, resist the opportunity for a free shot, standing instead cross-armed and grinning at their posts, watching, knowing full well that the only casualties in the nerd-on-nerd slapfight will be a couple of vintage tshirts. Not even any pride will die during one of these Red River slap attacks, for the combatants are too self-unaware to the embarrassments of their actions, even in the sober morning. And the bouncers have class–they don’t heckle or cheer or even bet, and only half-grin.
I know they won’t reconcile the sports metaphor, but if the siliconvoodoomerchants were a pro football team, this would be their Super Bowl. And, having made it into the big game through the wildcard berth, some coach made mostly of neck muscles would be screaming over them “Act like you’ve been here before!” And he’d be right to do it.
A very fat girl in a very small black dress lies unselfconsciously on the sidewalk, face against the wall, curled half-fetal, blubbering and drunk and sad. Her very tiny friend sits next to her, stroking the hair of the more drunk girl in a token of half-offered and half-obligatory comfort. The more sober tiny girl’s eyes bat, pleading, “Please kick my drunk friend unconscious so I can get up and go to the WankerDataCorp party at Emo’s.” Yes, her eyes are that verbose and specific in their demands. But nobody obliges and kicks her friend unconscious, thank god. She is stuck. Stuck there on the sidewalk offering insincere comfort.
After you throw your shoulder into one of supergeekfanboys at the bar, just to get it out of your system, you begin to feel sad for these technogrubbing kids. They are the contemporary equivalents of midwestern farm girls with one-way bus tickets to Hollywood, stars in their eyes and stars in their dreams but no stars in their futures. Like the Hollywood dreamer girls of past, for every hiptechnowannabe who makes it here, another hundred will find themselves techno-whored, working subsistence database management (or slinging coffee back home) and to boot feeling as if they’ve been intellectually fragged by the exfriend/expartner who stole their idea for internetnonesensegizmo and that some bigger company bought simply to destroy it. Even the hotshots of the nerdkingoverlords, the ones already lording over some successful digital fiefdom, are impossible to take seriously, even though they speak seriously from heads propped up in striped button-up shirts with horribly rumpled collars. Horribly rumpled all over. If you’re going to be one of the nerdkingoverlords collecting my private data, bundling and reselling it (you don’t make anything, don’t build anything you bastards!), then at least iron your goddamn shirt. Send out for dry-cleaning, you uberdweeb millionaire. The only ones I respect are the ones who make something, a truly new dataset, a truly new way to read the digital tea leaves. But those ones are too smart to admit that that’s what they do, unless you know them well.
To walk into the tradehow the next afternoon is to be assaulted by the smell of tons upon tons of offgassing plastics. Every species of petroleum derivative ever imagined and then synthesized or catalyzed by a chemical engineer is represented, seeping their idiosyncratic and invisible toxic hazes. Under the chemical reek of the plastics hangs the milder but rank organic stench of wet straw and mushrooms, the medical poker tell of the thousands of untreated chronic masturbators wandering the tradeshow aisles. One works hard to avoid bumping into one of them in the crowds.
The offgassing plastic smells are from the piles and piles of plastic promotional baubles. I see them everywhere and I know what we all already know. The Chinese are winning. Winning what, I’m less sure, but surely they’re winning. Not just winning, killing us. The Chinese central leadership has things like 500 year plans. Maybe the baubles are part of their plan to cancer us out of existence by year 499. Or maybe they’re trying to bury us under the plastics next month. Either way, we’re making it easy for them.
But I’m not above it–I collect my baubles. Flimsy beer coozies and frisbee that lights up. Stickers and buttons. Indeed, the screened canvas bags that SXSW gives away to registrants are more prized than anything I can find to put in them. But I do find three giveaways that impress, a beer key, some watercolors, and a harmonica.
I am greedy about the beer key, but with good reason. It is metal and functional. I haven’t seen either of those things here, let alone both in combination. They are being given out by some smokers’ rights organization, and shaped like little sections of a bike gear with little faux bike chain lanyards. The message confuses me. It has the logo of some hippie brand of tobacco printed on it. What’s the deal, the preferred nicotine fix of mountain bikers? I don’t try to make too much sense out of it. The next decent piece of swag I find is a set of watercolors. Finally–something real, something you can make something with. I don’t notice the company who gives it away to me. I didn’t forget either, just never noticed. They aren’t noticeable, and neither is their location in the convention center. Something to do with art.
Back in the tradeshow I find the best swag of the whole conference, a little blue plastic Hohner harmonica, given away by the Mississippi Blues Trail, which I assume is some heritage thing drumming up tourism for the folks back home. I excitedly grab and praise one of the little harmonicas. I don’t know how to play one, but it inspires me. The kind people running the booth, Mississippians all of them, ask me to repeat my praise as they record it with an iphone. I try. They are nice, and call me by my first name, and I want to please them. But I am a reactor and not an actor and my repeated praise is self-conscious and phony and forged. And herein is the whole problem with the whole conference. There is nothing new here, just a repackaging. If even the kind tourism people from Mississippi are doing it, repackaging my words, the second phony go-round, that tells us something. There is nothing new here this year, only digital spin. But they like my forced performance. They like it. And herein lies the rest of the problem–nobody but a lurking sulking few seem able to see the phony forged garbage that is the bulk of the display here at SXSWI, in the tradeshow and on the panels and uttered by the speakers. It is the national metaphor too–we are a nation that repackages last year’s crap in vinyl covers made by Chinese children who will dance on our graves as old men and women. And I’m beginning to think, good for those kids. They’ve earned it, and we’ve thrown away any right not to have our graves danced upon.
Men outnumber women here at SXSW Interactive at least 4 to 1, and it’s no more obvious than at the tradeshow, where thousands of manboyfanboys wander, and where almost every corporate booth is womanned by, well, a hot woman, the better to tractor beam in the geeks with. One attractive anchor-type woman demonstrates a desktop greenscreen software program that very truly impresses, but it’s clear that she is the draw. At another booth, in the high end tradeshow end-of-aisle real estate, college intern PR girls scamper in tight yellow dresses. The dresses are tennisballfuzz yellow, tight as stockings, and cup just around the PR girls’ asses, just below that bottom half of the cheek. They don’t seem to mind. Here in the tradeshow flourescence the nerdkingoverlords slaver over the PR girls, who bubble on unphased about database-this and rendering-that and trending-whatnot. They, judging by their false smiles and the contorting veins in the foreheads of the overlords, won’t sleep with the slavering technocratfratboys of the tech future. They may be nerdkingoverlords, but they haven’t figured out how to assert their medieval kingly prerogatives just yet. I can’t help but wonder if the tangible sexual frustrations of the manboy innovators is necessary. If these kids ever win over the PR girls then even the cheap trend imitations passing themselves off as innovations at SXSWI this year will cease, and the national economy will take yet another collective punch to the crotch. The PR girls will wear the little logo-ed, yellow, ass-cupping dresses, but they won’t sleep with the geeks. They didn’t come here to degrade themselves.
An itinerant shrink with a circus tent and his own team of PR girls could make a killing here. Or maybe not, for the fanboys dart quickly, caffeinated beyond any chance of self-reflection. Surely, it’s part of the problem. Weirdly shamanistic caffeine concoctions are promoted everywhere, and, weirdly, the nerdserfs are drinking them by the fistful.
It is all a bit too much. My primary mistake is not simply slinking into one of the film venues to sit in the dark, for hours at a spell. This is my mistake. I try to capitalize on the free booze, but it isn’t enough. I think of a grand experiment for next year–conduct careful surveys and calculations, see how many light-up frisbees wil equal the expense of a Gold Badge. Call the Chinese factories, find out the real value, do the calculations. I imagine at the end of the week a great pile of plastic swagtrash, photographed in scale-telling piles for the final reportage. Perhaps I’ll try it.
In the terminal during the layover on my way back to the mountain province I talk to an old man about the book about Mickey Mantle that he has in his lap. I hate the Yankees, but I love DiMaggio and Mantle too. What’s not to love? Seated, later, on the last flight, the last leg of SXSW Interactive 2011, the images of technogeekhipsters and Mantle coalesce in my brain. I imagine a young Mantle, drunk and in uniform, stalking the Austin Convention Center, smashing people and computers with his wooden bat. Somebody complains about the noise and violence. Mantle stops and considers the complaint, then picks up a yoga mat wafting to the floor from some exploding courier bag and wraps it around his bat. He resumes, alternately whomping on geekflesh and ipads with the now quieter bat. He continues down the convention center gallery, whomping, the thumpwhomp sounds growing fainter as he recedes down the gallery. This is the image in my mind as the plane ascends, and I drift to sleep as Mantle’s whomping grows quieter.
This may be my last opportunity to lecture the nerdkingoverlords before they take total technological, economic, and cultural control in their rumpled collars. So I’ll just say this: real men carry collar stays in their sundries bags, gentlemen. Stop acting like you’ve been here before–none of us have, really. It is not really the conference that offends, but its hangers-on and fanboys.
Goodbye, SXSW Interactive. See you next year.
[serious reflection in SXSW Interactive to follow]