SXSW Dispatch: The Geek Triumphant

Old SXSW used to be uphill with the toboggan—you had to explain what a modem was. These days you’re all heading down the slope full speed with your hands in the air.

– Bruce Sterling, Futurist Emeritus, SXSW 2010

For the first time since it was added to the festival’s line-up in 1994, SXSW Interactive has outsold Music in paid passes. It’s further proof of geek ascendancy in media, as well further proof that Interactive’s tagline—The Future is Now—might not be an idle boast. As Bruce Sterling ranted in his annual address at a packed Convention Center ballroom last night, the momentum of the scientific innovation has slipped into hyperdrive, for better or for worse. 

In Sterling’s eye, of course, it’s for worse. We’re making a mess of things, with all the tweet-ups and meet-ups and downloads and bootlegs and status updates and blithe disregard for the impact on the world outside our sleekly designed bubble. Our combination of self-absorption and apathy in the face of war, recession and environmental collapse is going to earn us the disgust of the next generation, and we aren’t doing enough, and even if we were, there’s not much we could do anyway, and it’s all going to hell, chaos, technofascism and waste. He’s seen the future, baby, and it is Juarez. 

But of course it’s not that simple, not for many of the innovators, and not even for Sterling, whose characteristic maelstrom of invective was both bracing and inspiring. (You can catch a rough transcription here.) At their best, SXSW Interactive sessions address the moral questions of emerging technologies, from technological surveillance to artificial intelligence to the use of neuroscience in marketing to the availability of hardcore porn on the Internet. This year’s most exciting sessions ripped those moral questions right open, sometimes on purpose, and sometimes accidentally, just because of the sessions’ constant twitter-assisted back-channels. 

But more on that later. There were were so many tantalizing panels and discussions that this faithful correspondent has only managed to catch three films. For the next few days, I’ll be catching up on screenings, blogging through the best and worst of the recent sessions, tweeting, and drinking standing in line at Ironworks. 

(Coming up next: Big Brother IS watching you. Strike a pose)