I wrote a post a few weeks ago — it seems so long ago — entitled Why I Am Not Going To SxSW. I was all wrong. Let me explain.
SxSW ia a petri dish for the social, mobile future.
My piece was primarily oriented to the event — the SxSW Interactive conference — and my past experiences as a participant. You know, ‘the rooms are too crowded’, ‘uneven sessions: some great, some terrible’, that sort of thing. I kvetched about the size of the town, everything too cramped… basically treating SxSW as a conference, and comparing it to other conferences.
Again, I was wrong.
SxSW has conferences embedded in its writhing chaos, but they are — sorry, conference organizers — the sideshow.
I wound up being in Austin during SxSW — various clients asked me to meet with them there — and so I wound up being at SxSW for a few days (catching a few meetings here and there) without attending even a single session of the event. So instead of watching people talk about where tech is going, there I was watching tech going.
And I realized that I should have come like an ethnographer, watching people and seeing what they were up to. SxSW ia a petri dish for the social, mobile future.
What did I see? Mobile, mobile everywhere. Much fewer PCs, smart devices, iPads, mobile social apps of all stripes (like Jyri Engstrom’s Ditto). Caroline McCarthy seems to have had the same experience, and she wonders what we can learn:
Caroline McCarthy, At SXSW, a peek at the post-laptop age?
How will this all translate to the “real” world? At SXSW, attendees are social-media lab rats, running around the maze of Austin bars, hotels, and conference rooms equipped with strange, glowing sensors that give them ambiguous signals about where to go and what to do at all hours of the day and night. Most of their quotidian professional routines—which, for most, would involve being at a full-size keyboard at a desktop computer—have come to a standstill. The city’s collective blood alcohol level, I’m willing to wager, is unusually high.
At SXSW, a case could be made that we are, indeed, living in a post-PC world. But SXSW isn’t how the real world runs. When Twitter captured the attention of the tech world at SXSW in 2007, it took well over a year for even the fringes of mainstream culture to catch on—mainly when celebrities realized that it was a great platform for self-promotion. And there, we’re talking about a free Web service, not a major change in the purchasing and productivity habits of millions of people.
The PC isn’t dead. But at SXSW, it’s moribund. And if you consider the annual festival to be a prognosticator of what the digital lifestyle will eventually be—well, then, maybe it’s time to make some predictions for a few years out.
SxSW is an artificial urban experience, with enormous social density, and a population with nothing on their minds but social connections and coordination of activities. It’s a hothouse, an artificial ecology where the number of connections that can be acted on — for meetings, suggestions, introductions — are at something like a human maximum. SxSW is coincidensity raised to its logical extreme. Like a swarm of mayflies flying in swarms, mating, and with nothing else on their minds. Except SxSW a mini-city of technoids with nothing but connection — and its uses — in mind.
Sure, don’t get me wrong. People are there chasing their personal goals — making deals, showing off software, hawking their newest book, looking for work — but the underlying ground that they are standing on is something from the near future, a combination of more connected urban experience and the mediated social experience of ubiquitous computing: mobile and social.
SxSW has done us all a great benefit, but seeding Austin with a tech salt lick — the conference — that acts as the beacon, rallying some initial core group to come to town each year for the conference. But the outliers who come for the circus and who never go into the tent to see the clowns and the trapeze, those twinkling, shifting hipsters who throng the streets, clubs and lobbies of Austin during SxSW are not just tech faddists: they are visitors from the future, a future with fewer old school PCs in it, and where everyone is rejinkulously connected.
Over 50% of the world’s population is now urban, and that is expected to rise to over 60% by 2030. The cities will not only be bigger, but increasingly dense, so what we learn from SxSW today could shape the social, mobile, urban landscape of the near future, since many of the architects of the future were there, taking notes.
So, again, I was deeply wrong. I’m glad now that circumstances brought me there, and in this different role: outside the conference, out in the messy, powerful flow of the SOMO (social, mobile) world.