Context-Removal Machine: SXSW 2010

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.