Technology giveth and taketh away, that was the essential gist of this year's SXSW Interactive, the premiere intellectual gathering of the world's technological community (and which inspired over a million social-media mentions). One might expect such a conference-slash-festival to merely proselytize about the marvels of modern tech, and that it does, but the dangers don't get a free pass.
That became crystal clear on day one when Interactive's first hot-ticket panel was "It's Reddit's Web. We Just Live In It." The message-board website, dubbed "the future of the Internet" and powerful enough to kill the censorious SOPA bill and attract even President Obama to its famed "Ask Me Anything" Q&As, was savaged as a bastion of bigotry, sexism and racism.
Unfortunately, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian (who delivered an address later in the week during which he "cold-called" his congresswoman about cybersecurity bill CISPA) declined to appear, perhaps because the rest of the panel -- Slate's Farhad Manjoo, Gawker's Adrian Chen and Rebecca Watson of Skepchick -- was antagonistic. But that left no defense to the not unwarranted concerns that the site's free speech ethos is too often expressed as mere trolling. Chen, after all, ran a longform expose of ViolentAcrez, the moderator behind Reddit's now-infamous "jailbait" subreddit. That left only audience members, including famed Imgur founder Alan Schaaf, to argue points like the site's fundraising efforts (think that bullied bus lady) without anyone from Reddit itself addressing concerns over moderation of its straight, white, male "hive mind."
It certainly stood in stark contrast to the rock star reception award to South African entrepreneur Elon Musk, the PayPal mogul who, in his words, went "all in" with his fortune to fund electric car company Tesla Motors, energy outfit SolarCity and civilian rocket ship outfit SpaceX.
"My friend asked me what did I want to do after PayPal? Well, I've always been into space. I went to the NASA website to find out when we were going to Mars, and I couldn't find out." So he decided to do it on his own. Initially, he admitted, he was worried that the U.S. had "lost the will to explore, the will to push the boundary, and in retrospect that was a very foolish error. The United States is a nation of explorers; the United States is a distillation of the human spirit of exploration. But people need to believe that its possible, that it's not going to bankrupt them, that they're not going to have to give up something important like Health Care or affect their standard of living. Then I think people would be very excited about sending people to Mars."
Then Musk showed off footage from a successful test completed just days earlier still unseen by anyone but its video editor of a Grasshopper rocket ship that rose 262.8 feet in the air and then landed -- yes, landed -- with the accuracy of a helicopter. The thousands in attendance erupted into wild applause. It felt like a glimpse into what he called "an exciting and inspiring future in Space."
Former vice-president Al Gore gave a speech about the future in the next slot, which was considerably less gung-ho on what lay ahead. Though he digressed into political corruption, NRA "fraud" and his sale of Current TV to Al-Jazeera, his technology points were no less dark as he worried about cloning and what he dubbed the "stalker economy" that had left us with almost no privacy online or off.
Gore then impressed attendees by namedropping trendy, teen-beloved self-destructing photo app Snapchat, often linked to sexting and of which Gore noted "clearly part of its appeal is that it erases the risk of that permanent record."
The conference continued pinging back and forth this way, from the opening talk by Makerbot boss Bre Pettis about the neo-industrial revolution ushered in by 3D Printers, who unveiled his company's consumer-level inexpensive MakerBot Digitizer, to today's talk by his archrival Cody Wilson behind 3D gun printing collective Defense Distributed, also known as the "wiki weapon project," which threatens to unleash untraceable and undetectable plastic guns into the world.
A panel on "the paradox of the cloud" pointed out that the environmental benefits of moving from physical to digital products are somewhat offset by a "vast physical infrastructure [of data centers] that depends on non-renewable resources. And that battle between physical and digital was fought in the journalism panels, too.
Internet impresario Harvey Levin of TMZ slammed his old media counterparts ("I think journalism has become a very lazy profession. Why aren't you working harder?") while pointing out that "There's room for important stuff and there's room for Grumpy Cat. And both will get you traffic."
(That would be foot traffic, too, as the feline behind the meme was brought to Austin by Mashable, inspiring hundreds to wait in line for hours just to snap a photo with said grumpy meme while also pointing out that tech revolution has wrought as much trivia as treasure. "Of all the photos I've posted, the one with Grump Cat has gotten the most comments," said one attendee. "We're all here to exploit this cat," her friend replied, "but I don't feel bad enough to not take this picture.)
The impact of the digital revolution was also decried in a panel featuring oft-blamed Craig's List founder Craig Newmark, where we heard about the decline in investigative journalism paired with the facts that since 2007 one-quarter of journalists have lost their jobs, newspaper revenue is down 40 and that for every $1 in digital advertising, seven is lost in print.
Even web-savvy newswoman Rachel Maddow discussed the dangers of social media. "It can make things go faster, that doesn't mean things are better, but it means momentum is manifest sooner than it otherwise would have been. It also means we can make lurching ill-considered movements because we're less deliberate. But on balance, I'll take it."
And ultimately, if panels and presenters seem admirably cognizant of the potential problems the technological revolution is introducing, on balance the positive influence of tech was still paramount and as other panels focused on everything from "interstellar travel" and "the unification of physics" to helping bring women into power positions in porn that, Cindy Gallop of makelovenotporn.com, predicted would one day create an industry "that doesn't degrade anybody, unless you want to be degraded."
At the convention center, attendees heard about the possibilities of the open-source OUYA game console while across the river at the gaming expo proper, where hundreds competed in huge LAN parties, a model of NASA's post-Hubble super-ambitious James Webb Space Telescope was wowing crowds while a scientist explained that for the October 2013 launch "we have to fold it up like origami, put it in a rocket ship and send it a million miles into outer space." There were also plenty of panels like "the making of a meme" and "toddler and technology" while sci-fi writer, and cyberpunk pioneer, Bruce Sterling delivered his annual "closing rant," and warned "Those who live by disruption die by disruption."
And SXSWi's big (product) launch was for Leap Motion, which is releasing a landmark 3D motion-capture computer interface that creates an infrared field in front of your computer, moving us beyond touchscreen and into Minority Report.
But perhaps the best distillation of optimism that underlies even the wariness was the world premiere of the film Downloaded and the meteoric rise and tragic fall of Napster, a film that demonstrated above all else the ability of a great idea to, borrowing a term used by both Al Gore and Elon Musk, "disrupt" the status quo. Still teenagers, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker reduced vertical power and spread it horizontally by turning the Internet into a decentralized peer-to-peer network -- essentially, giving power back to the people.
"There are huge sweeping changes going on in the world culturally and in terms of the flow of information," said Downloaded director Alex Winter, formerly of Bill and Ted fame. "History will be an eBook, and it will be easy to file share with your friends and you can make a wiki out of it."