The Cry of the Scottish Summer.
The Cry of the Scottish Summer.
Bye bye TV!
Recently, while on vacation in New Orleans for Mardi Gras and visiting family, we stayed at my sister’s house. She was kind enough to let us have her place while she found accommodations elsewhere. She moved in to this place herself not too long ago and was proud to point out to us the brand new,…
How TV ought to be
February 2012 will see the debut of Arc, a bold new digital publication from the makers of New Scientist.
Arc will explore the future through cutting-edge science fiction and forward-looking essays by some of the world’s most celebrated authors – backed up with columns by thinkers and…
First, SXSWi is huge. I mean really huge and this year was the largest it has ever been. Initially an add on to the more famous music festival, it has completely eclipsed it in size, at least as far as paying punters go.
Whilst I initially expected a conference (there are structured sessions every day, 15-20 at a time in the main part of the day), I was not prepared for the periphery of the conference. when you get 19,000 early adopters, developers, entrepreneurs, venture guys and PR/media people in a room (or a conference centre) then a lot of people have an incentive to try and make an impression on them. From the big company approach (shiny stand, slick giveaways, sponsored parties) to the guerilla marketing of the start ups (pub crawls, tug of war, puzzle games, free burritos) someone is always trying to get your attention and, fully engaged in (I tried but I’m too old to keep up) SXSWi is a relentless 24/7 assault on the senses.
Even by the standards of someone working within an industry where lavish attention and entertainment are not rare, it was rather overwhelming. The reason of course is obvious; its do or die, sink or swim for many of these companies. Especially in the case of the App developers, they need to establish a base, fast. In many respects, Chevy (who were punting the Volt, pony cars and Hybrids) has just as much to lose by not getting these people on board as the smallest silicon valley App developer, albeit the budgets they apply to their seduction attempt are somewhat different. These people are influencers and early adopters, and a certain swaggering rock n roll vibe suffused the attendees. The geeks will inherit the earth, if they haven’t already.
Second, its not about whats on (though there is much, perhaps too much, high quality content to choose from) its also about being there to hear it, walk the trade floor, chat to the start up guys, go to the TabbedOut or Tumblr party and generally immerse in the experience. For those who like their conferences with a traditional flavour (come in, sit down, get talked at for six hours, leave with scribbled on handout in conference bag) SXSWi is a bewildering experience. However, if you want to understand the cultural drivers, themes, enthusiasms and focus of people pushing and adapting technology, this is the place to be if you throw yourself into it. Twitter launched in 2006, but it got its traction when it was the must have application at SXSWi 2007 (this year GroupMe, Gowalla and Foursquare were still holding strong with many me too coupon and social platform apps making a showing). Indeed, those unused to the Twitter phenomenon (I include myself) would be somewhat bemused by the fact that 200 people can sit in a popular conference session tweeting to each other and the world about what the person on stage is saying while they are actually saying it. And no-one uses paper notebooks anymore, get over that.
Third, while there were huge brands there lavishing money on their presence (Samsung, Microsoft, Pepsi, Monster.Com, Chevy, CNN) this seemed to provoke as much contempt in attendees as pleasure at the lavish attention bestowed. The biggest success was Apple, who opened a pop up store in an unused retail unit, spent some money on painting it white with a few tables and went on to sell hundreds if not thousands of iPad2s with queues round the block (the store was only open each day for as long as it took to sell out of the latest delivery). They didn’t even need to bother with a stand in the trade show. This is a crowd that is receptive to fun and passionate about technology yet suspicious of overt corporatism. SXSWi may already have jumped the shark for some of them and there is a brand new interactive conference in Seattle in October that was touting its wares that may attract some of naysayers http://www.seattleinteractive.com/.
Fourth, many of the people coming together at SXSWi are there to meet people with whom they work every day. But have never yet seen or see only rarely. Whether working in development, media or marketing, many of the companies simply do not operate in a manner that we would recognise as a corporate structure, many of the start ups operating as networks spanning the globe on a formal or informal basis including recruiting and managing freelancers as appropriate. Most individuals choose to work in some sort of office, typically a “co working collective” or short stay hired space. One would expect that as companies grow and develop that they fuse together in more conventional structures however this did not seem to be the expectation of attendees and many of the discussions were around corporate culture and and how to monitor, motivate and control this disparate approach to organisation. Its not just start ups of course, a significant number of IBM staff are remote workers but given the pace with which successful and disparate companies such as Groupon have exploded into companies of substance, the MBA types at Harvard may have to re-visit their organisational charts as this seems unlikely to remain a fringe/small company model. For our own part, we should question whether being a global business that works 9-5 GMT (with the honourable exception of the dealing team) is going to cut the mustard in ten years time and whether we really need 600+ desk jockeys sitting in an expensive office every day, albeit the answer may well be yes.
Finally, if there was an overarching impression it was the degree of faith and optimism among attendees that technology puts the solutions to all of our problems at our fingertips and that social media is not merely a faddish enthusiasm but a genuine medium for transformative change in business and social practices , much as the internet itself was. There may be a degree to which this faith is the product of a blue pill/red pill choice, there’s not much room for technological scepticism here (albeit there were some challenging sessions about the evaporation of privacy and the ease of control and monitoring in society).
Should investors attend?
For those who cling firmly to the adage that resolutely avoiding “new paradigms” and “its different this time” is the best way to maintain investment discipline, SXSWi might seem a dangerously seductive cultlike experience. Start up people I spoke to openly acknowledged that raising money for start up Apps or content delivery systems is like falling off a log at the moment and confidence has not been as high since the dot com boom (most being veterans of a few false starts, even the fresher faced among them). For every company handing out free burritos that goes on to IPO for a billion dollars, many more won’t be back to serve dubious snacks again but their failed idea will probably be adapted and improved and come back in another guise.
As a counterpoint to my Scottish calvinist bent, the pervading sense of optimistic certainty was like a warm bath, as it fades I find myself wanting to hit the high again. Consequently, I have resolved to throw myself into some of the technologies that a few months ago, I would have grunted at and dismissed as a bit daft (I still don’t get Twitter really but I’m trying, in fact, I’m tweeting this). Treated as grassroots, scuttlebutt and a fantastic opportunity to make connections and bounce ideas off people in the tech (and ancillary) industry in a relaxed setting as well as hear about new technological applications and their role in society and business culture, I think SXSWi is definitely worth attending. The ideal attendee being gregarious, a tech enthusiast and a big picture person who is happy to glean skeins of inspiration rather than expect the blanketed cosseting of an investment conference.
After a refreshing (or should that be refreshed) break at SXSW music festival, I’m now faced with piles of notes from the SXSWi sessions.
Of course, the beauty of SXSWi is that, however many sessions you made it to, you could never make them all and so there is an extensive collection of slides, twitter feeds, notes and blogs to back up my own scribblings. I’ll be posting these up here for the next few days which might get rather boring for those of you on Facebook.
Though it rather seems like half of you were there at some point anyway.
The Monarch butterfly is famous for its’ long migration flights. A valued source of data to scientists, the butterflies are lately throwing up some conundrums, as it appears that climate change may be changing their habits as they respond to less hospitable conditions.
So it is with Austin. The Keep Austin Weird campaign seems to have progressed from bumper sticker to rear guard action. There are signs of gentrification, prosperity and entrepreneurship here, still delicately balanced with the hipster/counter culture that renders Austin so unique in the first place.
Yet the city continues to grow despite the woes of the US housing market. How long can balance be maintained?
East Austin promises a continuation of the weirdness that made Austin what it is, but with newly built glass condo towers looming over downtown, the clock to theme park status is ticking.
Don’t get me wrong, SXSW is thriving as are the Austin bars and music scene, one just wonders if, like Glastonbury, they are doing a little too well to retain their edge where it counts.
One of the best talks at interactive I attended featured Intel’s in house ethnographer, Dr Genevieve Bell. Dr Bell spends her time in homes all over the world talking to people about how they use technology and building an understanding of local cultural and social drivers.
She has been described as “Intel’s secret weapon”. Check out her talks on You Tube. Or better, come to SXSW interactive next year!
And so SXSW interactive fades away to be replaced by its more hectic music counterpart.
There is a bar in Groningen called Vera where I scratched my name on the toilet door in about 1992. It was still there last time I checked.
The longevity and affection surrounding the musical part of SXSW is of similar duration but I can’t help feeling that if the interactive part began as a barnacle, the two parts are becoming symbiotic.
EMI and Warner are both for sale/screwed.
Sony - who knows but the fact that thy made Betamax VCR units until 2004 tells you all you need to know about their adaptability. They should have owned digital music. FAIL.
And so there is a land grab in process. As the majors slowly subside, their influence and control over the channels of distribution and publishing recede (the musical money shot).
Consequently, there are a host of tech companies at SXSW promising streaming, in concert or fan social media apps to bands this year.
Bands have always had people taking huge cuts of their revenue and the demise of the majors leave virgin lands to tech companies. Expect a new business model to emerge within 18 months to replace the classic model with a service based/revenue share one rather than the high cost crap shoot model of the majors.