17 March 2014

She says, "what?"

Appearing through seven layers of irony, Ed Snowden knows everything at SXSW
Austin Convention Center, Austin, Texas, 10th March, 2014
This week I have mostly been… in Texas.

I have passed through Texas before, sojourning for a few hours at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, wondering if I would be arrested, deported and water-boarded for enquiring as to whether or not there was a vegetarian option at the local Steak N’Death food franchise, but this time I actually ventured further beyond the relative safety of the transit lounge and in to the carry-and-conceal utopia that is the Lone Star State.

The purpose of my visit, the South by Southwest Music, Interactive and Film Conferences and Festivals in Austin, Texas, or SXSW for short (confusingly pronounced as “South by”, by folks too busy to be using words and things). In the Really Real World, I run a tech start-up, and in the Really Real World SXSW is where tech start-ups go when they want to be as far away from the Really Real World and as close to their own duodenum as it is possible to go without undertaking complex surgery.

If you imagine the tech world as a giant inflating Celtic Tiger property bubble, then SXSW is Brendan O’Connor telling you that all the smart, ballsy guys are are out buying like there’s no tomorrow, but with more beer. In fact alcohol is almost as all-encompassing as the cheerful techno-libertarian “let’s all move to an unregulated artificial off-shore floating paradise” optimism, with the former possibly being more-than-somewhat responsible for the latter. 

The conference itself is housed in a large downtown convention centre and a few satellite locations, but the bulk of the activities are distributed throughout the city in venues commandeered by tech companies, music labels and assorted “value-adders” all running their own promotional events, and by promotional events I mean “free-beer-and-Jay-Z” that would leave shareholders in any other industry scratching themselves and asking, “remind me again what this has to do with that thing that we do, make and/or sell?”. Throughout the week I managed to miss DJ Shadow, Chromeo, Childish Gambino and a host of WARP acts that appeared mere hours after I boarded a plane to come home, all of whom were there to promote something or other, possibly cats.

Well you'd be pretty grumpy too if someone dangled you out a window to a braying horde below
6th Street, Austin, Texas, 10th March, 2014
Speaking of cats, I did actually manage to see one, dangled out of a third floor window Michael Jackson-style, and boy was he grumpy (it’s an internet meme, look it up). Success Kid (or rather, Success Toddler as he is now) was also somewhere in the vicinity, though thankfully his parents thought better of dangling him out a window, though apparently they were just dandy with renting him out by the hour to a local hotel.

One fellow whom I did manage to see, albeit via video conference and seven proxies, was Ed Snowden, looming magisterially above me on a giant screen urging us all on in our two minute hate from an undisclosed location in Eurasia (whom apparently we have always been at war with, as evidenced by all the once and future shenanigans in Crimea). This was, in fact, the totality of talks that I made it along to, as I was working pretty much solidly for the entire time I was there.

With that in mind, my impression of it all may be a little skewed. My awareness of SXSW has always been that it was little more than Spring Break for the tech industry, an alcohol-fuelled frat party for the very worst excesses of the brogrammer culture, and I have to say that what I saw did little to dissuade me of that notion. Our industry is insular and self-policing, where sociopathic behaviours that would never be tolerated anywhere outside of Stanley Milgram’s basement are celebrated as the loveable quirks of unicorn-riding black swans, and SXSW is the ‘Play Hard’ reward for all the ‘Work Hard’ expectations that in normal countries would see management up in front of employment tribunals, but in the US propels them on to the cover of Time.

Misogyny in the tech industry? What misogyny?
Austin Convention Center, Austin, Texas, 9th March, 2014
Before I went, I always pictured it as being a tad “Masque of the Red Death”, but after being there for the week it all came across more like a giant game of shuffleboard on the B ship of the Golgafrincham Ark Fleet. Never have so many been so irrelevant to so many more, and not had the faintest understanding of it all.

As for me, well I was just there for the MeowMeowBeenz.

(And remember folks, a happy Three is a future Four)



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