At South by Southwest, the politics are as conventional as the technology is innovative
Austin, Texas – ‘Really? You’re still using that Twitter app?” she asks me. “Oh.” She raises an eyebrow, amused, and I’m taken aback. If not ahead of the curve, I’m usually at least on it. But not here. Here at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, “new” is counted in seconds, yesterday is last year, and you can pay for your beers with your cellphone. This, attendees tell me, is the curve.
The signs around the convention center read “Trade Show,” but they might as well say “Mecca.” “South By,” as its devotees breezily refer to it, is a pilgrimage, as important for what happens outside the trade floor as for what happens on it. My new friend, of the casual Twitter insult, is but one foot soldier in a vast, 20,000-strong array of programmers, entrepreneurs, sales representatives, analysts, reviewers, and enthusiasts, and they are enjoying a week-long sojourn in Texas on their way to changing the world.
The combination of social media, smartphones, and Apple’s infectious aesthetic futurism has made tech pretty. The convention center pullulates with hipsters in skinny jeans, sharp-dressed men, and girls who would not look out of place on Fifth Avenue. Because the SXSW festival’s other components are music and film and the confab is held in “weird” Austin, the rock-and-roll vibe is perhaps particularly strong. But Austin or no Austin — and “South By” or no South By — IT and culture overlap more widely these days. Think where IT is based: San Francisco, Austin, Los Angeles, Vancouver, New York, all cultural centers of one sort or another.
The festival’s opening speech is delivered by Bre Pettis, a Seattle schoolteacher-turned-entrepreneur whose company, MakerBot, is the talk of the town. It makes 3D printers, and is doing for small manufacturers what the dot-matrix printer did for corporate offices. A MakerBot, which uses heat to mold plastic into shapes designed on a computer, costs $2,200. The company predicts that, as the price falls, interested individuals will start to pick up units, too — perhaps using them to make repairs and replace widgets that they can no longer buy, downloading blueprints from the 40,000-item “Thingiverse” library. Pettis, who becomes visibly jazzed as he speaks, tells the congregation that he is “leading the next industrial revolution.”
For every good invention, there are ten that are worthless. One of the apps generating a lot of buzz is a new social network, “Hater,” that allows users to share things they despise. Then there is the downright pointless side of it all. Something you hear a lot here from attendees is, “My start-up? Well, it’s a bit like [massively successful existing app/service] except for [tiny change].”
That many of the fruits of modern technology are trivial — or worse — does not mean that they are not influential. Perhaps because of their reflexive embrace of the “new,” progressives appear to know this instinctively. Conservatives, alas, do not. The Left is not just supported by the phalanx of iPhone-toting young people; its luminaries engage with them, too. Acolytes of Obama’s hip leftism, including Rachel Maddow, Bill Keller, Chris Hayes, and Nate Silver, speak to packed rooms, whose audiences welcome them with comradely cheers. On Saturday afternoon, Al Gore’s speech on “The Future” is so popular that hopeful attendees are stretched around two sides of the convention center. They are told in no uncertain terms that it’s full and that they have “zero chance” of getting in. But they join and wait anyway, and those who don’t make it in wait outside the doors and, rapt, watch the livestream on their cellphones.
Although conservatives are aware of the tech gap and their wider cultural problem, they don’t seem to be even trying to win over this crowd. Marco Rubio’s brilliant Twitter recovery after taking an awkward sip of water during his televised response to the State of the Union address hinted at talents for both online promotion and message control. But Rubio is not here. Rand Paul, who made a national issue of domestic drone strikes with his recent filibuster speech — and who would certainly find some fans among this set — is not here. Hardly anyone from the right is. Not a single talk at SXSW has a conservative bent. A few lean libertarian, but in a depressingly narrow sense: I attend a panel called “How to Keep EFF and the ACLU Off Your Ass.”
The only Republican who turns up is Senator Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), the sole speaker at an event titled “Why Public Policy Should Matter to Your Start-up.” Moran, who voted against SOPA and PIPA, is spearheading a pro-tech policy named Startup Act 3.0 that would ease immigration for those with technical skills, require cost-benefit analysis of new regulations, decrease the tax burden on start-ups, and encourage commercialization of taxpayer-funded research. He is here to talk government and IT. Dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, he is (surprisingly) lionized by the host who introduces him, for having supported Rand Paul’s anti-drone filibuster and for his promotion of high-skilled immigration.
Unexpectedly, drones and extrajudicial assassinations dominate the conversation’s first 15 minutes. At ease, Moran makes a passionate defense of the Fifth Amendment. For this, he receives a round of applause. He explains at length why Paul’s filibuster is crucial to the republic. More applause. Finally, the host moves us on to the question of visas for the highly skilled. Moran avers that the desire for a “comprehensive” immigration bill shouldn’t prevent vital “piecemeal” steps from being taken. This, too, is greeted with applause. In answer to a question from a Democratic politician, Moran subtly reminds the audience that he is a Republican. The audience laughs, nervously.
Later, the conversation takes a predictable turn for the worse, and the questions change: “Why isn’t my pet project funded, Senator?” “Shouldn’t we have national free Wi-Fi?” “Aren’t you all corrupt in Congress?” Moran defends himself ably, explaining that government works best locally, that the federal treasury has run out of money, and that a growth agenda is the best policy. The room remains skeptical, but that’s okay. And it occurs to me: Senator Moran is the only Republican here explaining the effect of bad government on business. America’s most influential young entrepreneurs are being allowed to live and work in an echo chamber in which Republicans are either ignored or grossly mischaracterized. Moran shows beyond doubt that he understands the issues, dispelling grievous myths about Republicans in the process. Why is he alone?
Down the hall, two middle-aged men are hanging around the free phone chargers discussing online dating sites. “Can the women tell that you’re looking at their profiles?” one asks the other. “Yes,” his friend replies. “Um . . . can they tell how many times you look at their profiles in one day?” His friend gives him an odd look. Quietly, I excuse myself. Occupy Wall Street is here, too, and wherever they go, bizarre conversations follow. But even if some of SXSW’s attendees are risible and others overly earnest, they are very serious about changing the world.
I drop in on SXSW’s “Hackathon for Social Good,” one of many being held this year across the country. Its participants seek to build “applications to help benefit non-profit organizations.” Elsewhere, a group named “Occupy.Here” has gone so far as to create a parallel Internet, an “archipelago of virtual spaces” to which “committed activists and casual supporters” can connect and hold “open political discussions.” Occupy.Here claims that they are engaging in “distributed Wi-Fi occupation.” I ask what is wrong with the existing Internet. The answer is incomprehensible.
It is curious to see that so many of those who look so reflexively to the future are ultimately deploying their time and talents in the name of such a dated and discredited political philosophy. Come election time, hosts of America’s finest technologists — people who understand the decentralized nature of the future — use their iPhones to sell FDR and campus speech codes. Sure, they’re changing the nature of government and of democracy with their tools; but ultimately it’s in the service of the same old doctrine of central control. Young people have long skewed to the left, and probably always will. But if conservatives wish to return to power, these are the people whom, to borrow a buzzword from the convention floor, they need to “engage.” It will be daunting: The pioneers will certainly meet a few people who will ask whether they’re really still using that Twitter app. But if they turn up, at least they can reply: “What should I be using instead?”