Skip to content

Networking into the Abyss

Inside the empty bubble of SXSW Interactive

For ten days each March, Austin, Texas, becomes suffused with an ambient hucksterism. It creeps into the city like a low-lying fog, concentrating in the downtown area, where numbing displays of corporate extravagance and desperate marketing stunts become the order of the day. Occasionally, this hucksterism condenses into one insufferable person, who comes to symbolize all that is wrong with South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-themed portion of the rapidly metastasizing SXSW festival—and, by extension, the vacuous blather of the technology industry itself.

At this year’s SXSWi, I met several such types. At a bar called Javelina, I ran into a twenty-five-year-old employee of a social media startup, backed by Marc Andreessen’s high-flying venture capital firm. We were both attending yet another party hosted by yet another tech firm. When I told her I was a journalist, she showed her disgust by pantomiming a hand job. Why, she asked me, speech slurred almost beyond intelligibility, do we need journalism when we have social media?

I met another person at an otherwise anodyne dinner for Israeli startups, where a dozen or so entrepreneurs presented their companies to potential investors and partners, along with a few journalists. To protect the guilty, I’ll call him Brian. In his late twenties and hailing from South Florida, Brian had the kind of hazy résumé that defines a number of unaffiliated SXSW participants. (While many SXSWi attendees, buoyed by expense accounts, are sent by their employers, 37 percent paid full freight this year.) He was some sort of entrepreneur or consultant, or a serial entrepreneur, someone who had helped launch others’ startups and was now working on his own.

I learned this in fragments. When Brian first sat down at our table, gulping from what would be one of at least five glasses of red wine, I asked him what he did.

“What do I do? I do many things,” he said, before flashing a wide smile, pleased with himself.

“I prefer to ask people what they’re passionate about,” he said. “What are you passionate about?”

It was a line he used on anyone who had the ill fortune to approach our table. He delivered it—and a windy, opaque explanation of the community-building website he was developing—with the stilted pacing of someone trying to make a much-practiced speech seem off the cuff.

By the end of the evening, I still had little idea what Brian’s company did, though it sounded like some version of Facebook’s Pages feature. He hadn’t honed the sort of logline that is de rigueur at SXSW: “It’s like Twitter but for videos”; “It’s Tumblr meets Airbnb—but for business”; “It’s a place where people can meet and exchange career advice.” Like LinkedIn? “Yeah, but better.”

I never learned what he was passionate about. None of us could stomach flipping the question around, as he clearly wanted us to. Finally, he stood up and reached out to shake hands.

“Follow me on Twitter,” he said. “I’ll follow you back.”

Why, she asked me, do we need journalism when we have social media?

He stumbled to the door. I saw him enter the hallway and spin around, confused. A fleeting look of sadness appeared on his face, before he found the stairs and was gone. That evening, as I unloaded the day’s haul of business cards out of my pocket and left them on a table, likely never to be examined again, I imagined Brian doing the same. Perhaps he called his wife and told her he had made some important contacts. More likely, he passed out with his shoes on.

In fairness, many of the people I met in Austin were nothing like this. From the Belgian startup founder working on a new kind of courier service to the average attendee in the convention center elevator, SXSWers were often friendly and solicitous—a style of self-presentation entirely consistent with the festival’s networking ethos. But these aren’t the encounters that stick. And the attitudes reflected above—the condescension and privilege, the irrational self-belief and contempt for opposing views—indicate something wrong at the heart of the tech industry’s preeminent festival of ideas. More broadly, they’re part of a rotten culture that garishly celebrates itself while remaining divorced from the concerns of its customers. During SXSW, Austin becomes a money-soaked mélange of hyper-consumerism and techno-utopianism. In the bazaar of terminally bad ideas—amid the panels on DJ epistemology, the hackathons, and the Spotify parties—it was completely unexceptional, say, for a VP from Demand Media, the notorious content farm, to be preaching from his designated panel (which was, of course, called “Perfection: Algorithms to Optimize Human Existence”) that ubiquitous sensors “will usher in a new golden age of humanity.” (The event’s Twitter hashtag provided its own unwitting miniaturist commentary on the self-regarding folly of it all: #perfect.)

Bubble Vision

South by Southwest started as a small music festival in 1987. It has seen continual growth, with film and media components joining in to cosponsor the annual event starting in 1994. The digital side of the gathering was renamed SXSW Interactive in 1999, and since then, the tech arm has absorbed its host: a greater number of people now pay to attend SXSWi (30,621) than SXSW Film (16,297) or Music (25,119). (These numbers include press and other complimentary registrations.) Recently, SXSW added separate education and environmental festivals, and August will see the first installment of SXSW V2V, a venture capital conference hosted in Las Vegas. For a minimum registration fee of $695, V2V promises the usual mix of pitch sessions, themed lounges, mentorship opportunities, snack breaks (“food is the great leveler,” says V2V’s website), and “meaningful, one-on-one connections with fellow innovators.” Featured speakers include meme hustler Tim O’Reilly and the CEO of Zappos. The choice of Sin City is explained as an appeal to “the tenacity of spirit and vision inherent in the Las Vegas ideal” but could be better understood as the union of two easily confusable concepts: venture capital investment and gambling.

This year, registered attendance for SXSWi increased by almost 25 percent over 2012. And that’s just the badge holders. Many festival veterans (or those unable to afford Interactive badges, which start at $695) swear off the official events, and instead go to parties and networking events, or just walk the streets.

The festival’s soaring success has drawn the usual criticisms that it’s no longer what it once was or that it has somehow jumped the shark. These same complaints—and the meteoric growth and subsequent franchising—have of course dogged other large festivals that claim vague indie or altcult birthrights, from Coachella to Burning Man. But while SXSW still touts the virtues of networking and DIY culture, it has become increasingly difficult for small companies to distinguish themselves from the corporate and VC herd—or for individual attendees, surrounded on all sides by crass marketing gimmicks and block-long lines to pose with a famous Internet cat, to sift much signal from the noise. Still, in the case of SXSWi, there aren’t widespread laments that the event’s plucky DIY founding spirit has been sold out to the Man—largely for the simple reason that, in this social construction, the heroic innovator and the Man are on the same continuum of aspiration. The whole goal of SXSWi is to sell out, to arrive one year as a plucky upstart (as, for example, Foursquare in 2010) and then to graduate into festival lore and VC riches, ready to throw the kind of reputation-cementing parties that are SXSW’s most valuable currency.

Last year, SXSW estimated its economic impact, across all festivals, at $190.3 million, making it the biggest single event in Austin. All of that money has done little to make up for a general poverty of imagination. As San Francisco Chronicle technology columnist James Temple recently wrote, Silicon Valley, while claiming that it will change the world, “concerns itself primarily with getting people to click on ads or buy slightly better gadgets than the ones they got last year.” A signature case in point is the search giant Google, which promotes its hugely ambitious “moonshot” projects and its “Don’t Be Evil” motto, but still makes 96 percent of its revenue from advertising.

This disconnect was on display at SXSW this year.[*] You couldn’t move from one bar to the next, it seemed, without encountering another unsurprising social startup—nor could you hope, for more than a minute or two, to dodge the festival’s nonstop blizzard of grandiose-sounding yet deeply petty business argot hailing the esteemed body of digital “influencers,” the inevitable tide of ceaseless “innovation,” the savvy doings of an executive “ninja,” or the hyped-up business plans of “disruptive” companies. (The Onion, typically blistering and on point, ran the following headline: “Word ‘innovate’ said 650,000 times at SXSW so far.”)

That’s not to say that there aren’t any worthy events. 3-D printing was big this year and produced some of the best conversations about manufacturing and creativity. A panel on Reddit dissected the popular site’s culture of misogyny and racism; as Rebecca Watson noted, “There’s no social cost of being a bigot on Reddit. In fact, it’s the opposite. You’re rewarded for it.” A town hall event devoted to activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide earlier this year, included some very fine discussion about intellectual property, overzealous federal prosecutors, and the role of technology companies in making Internet policy. But the hall was mostly empty, despite the presence of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web; scholar Tim Wu; and Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s partner.

Stinebrickner-Kauffman was particularly impressive. “Aaron is one of the most privileged of the victims of our criminal justice system,” she acknowledged. “And it’s the reason why we’re all talking about him.” She implored the audience to think rigorously and critically about their work, particularly if they aimed to leverage their own conspicuous privilege in the knowledge economy to become the next generation of tech moguls.

“You probably understand design and you probably understand code, but do you understand power?” she asked. “Have you broken out of your bubble?”

For many, the answer is no. Austin during SXSW is a bubble. With everyone staring at their phones, it resembles a roving and only notionally offline social network, in which something cooler and more interesting is always happening elsewhere.

Hoping to find some way to address the gnawing suspicion that digital technology often leaves us feeling more connected but less fulfilled, I attended a panel called “Is This Progress? More Meaning In Our Digital Life.” The panel—made up of designers from Frog and Amazon; Facebook’s manager of location services; and Evan Smith, CEO and founder of the Texas Tribune—started off promisingly but never lived up to its mandate. An audience member posed a philosophical question: Do we lose something with these heavily mediated digital interactions, and is it a problem that these mediators, like Facebook, are trying to monetize our social interactions?

“No one is forcing you to be on Facebook,” Smith responded sharply. “Don’t join Facebook, don’t join Twitter. If it offends your sensibilities, you have the option of opting out.”

I wasn’t the only one disappointed. In a bathroom line after the event, an Australian man commiserated with his friend: “There was no meaning, no depth.” I told him I agreed. “It was such an awesome theme,” he said, “and then . . .” His voice trailed off.

Heart of Glass

Part of the yearly allure of SXSW—especially for the striving would-be leaders of the innovator class—is its reputation as a kingmaker event. The conference now serves as a digital coming-out party, where brash new startups such as Twitter can abruptly leap into public view. The quickly established consensus this year was that no company or product dominated the festival, although Google Glass—a set of eyewear featuring a head-mounted display and smartphone-like functionality, including voice search—was much discussed. SXSW does in fact give out awards, and you can tell something about the festival’s values—a mix of the frivolous and the mendacious—by who and what it chooses to honor. So, for example, while the festival admirably supports the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it also gave its Digital Campaign of the Year award to KONY 2012, the site devoted to publicizing the crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony—a campaign that has come to epitomize do-nothing slacktivism while also providing a trendy new digital spin on the white-savior complex. The Business award went to a magnet that a customer can push to order pizza. This year’s Technical Achievement belongs to the Nike FuelBand, a $149 electronic wristband that tracks physical activity and rewards exercise with the invented metric of NikeFuel points. (It’s also received pretty mixed grades, with some of the more laudatory reviews calling it “maddeningly expensive” and “clunky”; few have openly questioned whether NikeFuel points, based on an algorithm inspired by something called “oxygen kinetics,” are in fact bullshit.)

SXSW now reaches far beyond the Austin Convention Center on Cesar Chavez Street.[**] It’s difficult to exaggerate how thoroughly the event dominates downtown Austin and its surrounding neighborhoods, with the festival now spilling south across the Colorado River, which bisects the city. Many thoroughfares are blocked off—including large portions of Sixth Street, the city’s answer to Bourbon Street. This main artery of Austin’s music scene is thronged during the festival with pedestrians, pedicabs, party buses, and young people strapped into banana costumes, hawking a ride-sharing service. Lampposts, parking meters, and concrete pillars are wrapped in cellophane-like material, providing adhesive surfaces for marketers to wallpaper with posters and stickers, which eventually become stacked upon one another, inches thick.

Festival marketers have become notorious for their marketing gags, which, in the manner of Super Bowl commercials, have become something of a main event, parsed and celebrated by attendees and the media alike. Last year, this competitive shilling reached its nadir when a marketing firm turned homeless people into mobile 4G hotspots. Festival-goers were encouraged to donate to homeless workers—who wore T-shirts that read “I’m a 4G hotspot”—in exchange for an access code. This year was relatively tame, with popular displays including 3M’s interactive hologram festival guide[***] and Oreo’s green-screen photo booth. A successful but little-known HR outsourcing company earned an inordinate amount of praise for mailing yams to some attendees and journalists under the guise of a fictional company, Mashable, the social media news site, created lines blocks long by offering a chance to pose for a picture with Grumpy Cat, the feline Internet celebrity of the moment.

The marketing machine doesn’t only want to sell to you; it wants you to sell your own networked persona on its behalf.

Besides these stunts, sponsors curry favor with attendees through free concerts, swag (the press suite in the Austin Convention Center offered GoToMeeting-branded underwear and harmonicas), phone-charging stations, goofy photo ops, and the two most beautiful and most dangerous words in the English language: open bar. Attendees are also implored to tweet photos and hashtags so as to have a chance to win gadgets—the lesson being that the marketing machine doesn’t just want to sell to you; it wants you to sell your own networked persona on its behalf.

The cumulative effect of all this is to erase the distinction between advertisement and the surrounding environment. Everything and everyone is pushing something—in the case of the tech conference’s constant networking, the product on offer is ourselves—and anything that doesn’t seem like advertising is surely just a bit of covert viral marketing. You begin to get suspicious of people whose shirts don’t have logos. Soon it is no longer a surprise that a shuttle bus has been transformed into a massive owl—which, after a moment of disorientation, you realize is the logo of an app on your iPhone. A Porta Potty that shows bystanders how long you’ve been in the loo and whether you’re sitting or standing comes to be seen not as an invasion of privacy but as an example of clever engineering.[****] Even the panel on Aaron Swartz’s legacy was not immune; when I entered the hall, a volunteer offered me a wristband bearing a quote from Swartz’s blog: “Take the outside view.” Each band had an attached tag bearing the name of the manufacturer, This was Livestrong for the socially conscious tech set.

Policing for the Privileged

SXSW is now dotted with celebrities, both on panels and at events about town. But tech moguls, and their gadgets, are the event’s real stars. Tech blogger Robert Scoble was spoken of in reverential tones. Each sighting of someone wearing Google Glass created a gravity well of attention. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk was received with fanfare and plied for his wisdom on a range of subjects. Asked by a Twitter user how he would improve education, Musk responded, “Generally you want education to be as close to a video game as possible, like a good video game.”

This celebrity effect is quite real, but it obscures the myopia and privilege that define SXSW, where only 15 percent of attendees make less than $50,000 per year. It’s a world that, for most of us, is a far cry from perfect. Many tech outsiders, for example, express a mix of shock and envy upon reading about the luxurious amenities at the offices of Facebook and Google. Recently, Rebecca Solnit, writing in the London Review of Books, mourned the tech industry’s effects on the Bay Area—soaring housing prices, poor tenants evicted to make way for thirty-year-old millionaires, an erosion of the region’s cultural history, and private luxury buses undercutting support for public transport. She writes:

Poverty is cruel and destructive. Wealth is cruel and destructive too, or at least booms are. The whole of the US sometimes seems to be a checkerboard of these low-pressure zones with lots of time and space but no money, and the boomtowns with lots of money, a frenzied pace and chronic housing scarcity. Neither version is very liveable.

During the five days of SXSWi, this boomtown effect is recreated in downtown Austin, which is no longer Austin but is in fact a Vegas-ized version of the Google life, down to the private buses. (I rented a place in North Austin and took a city bus, which was convenient and cost only a dollar.) Parts of downtown Austin are booming too, with the attendant housing shortage; Austin’s real estate barons can’t put hotels up fast enough. In his closing remarks, festival director Hugh Forrest promised that there would be more accommodations next year.

There are cracks in this image of digital Austin as the geek-chic Vegas, though—places where the boom meets the low-pressure zones.

On my way to the Sheraton hotel for a panel about cyberbullying, I walked past the Coyote Ugly bar on Sixth Street. It was just after noon, and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” was blasting at tremendous volume while a bartender, armed with a PA system, exhorted passersby to come in and start drinking. A block further, I stumbled upon the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). Dozens of homeless men and women were outside, mingling, sleeping, drinking, eating, playing music. I couldn’t help but think of the previous year’s Wi-Fi stunt (perhaps some of these people had been recruited for it), and a story from a couple days prior, in which Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who’s worth $43 billion, had docked his 288-foot yacht next to a homeless encampment in Hawaii.

I started talking to some of the people outside the resource center and ended up visiting it a couple times. I met Chris Hudlin, who is in his early forties and has lived in Austin for more than three years. “I’m a worker,” he said, showing me his callused hands. His wife is a few months pregnant, and they’ve only recently been on the streets. He likes the programs at ARCH but doesn’t want to sleep there because, as he said, “It’s too many people with broken spirits. It’s too much animosity, too much hardship.”

Hudlin described Austin as a “mecca” for the homeless—“a wonderful town”—but the influx has caused some stress. He’s seen his share of violence and theft among the homeless community. The bigger problem, as he sees it, is the police, whom he accuses of harassment.

A few days before SXSW this year, Hudlin said, the police came through the area and began issuing tickets and making arrests. Friends told him that this sweep was a common occurrence as the city prepared to host the big festival. In his own experience, he’s bothered by officers who tell him to leave the street opposite the shelter, only to return later to say that he can’t be in front of the shelter either.

“This is just harassment now,” Hudlin said. “It’s just something to do.”

He doesn’t mind the festival but said that “as far as the homeless situation goes, the businesses coming down for South by Southwest, that money doesn’t go here.”

“Every city has its basis, what it was built on,” he said. “And Austin is built on partying. And it’s built on the college, on U.T. As long as you don’t interfere with those two things right there, you’ll be okay, hunky-dory.”

A few cops stood by a barricade in the nearby intersection, watching us. “You see those cops there?” Hudlin asked. “I bet they’re looking at ten things that are illegal right now.” He started pointing to homeless people around us, singling out someone smoking weed, someone drinking out of a Styrofoam cup (alcohol, Hudlin said), and so on. The implication was that as long as the illegal activity in question didn’t penetrate the charmed circle of the festival, the cops would simply look the other way, satisfied they’d kept out the undesirables. On the other hand, past experiences showed that the police could be capricious.

As I left, moving toward the police Hudlin had pointed out, I ended up walking behind another homeless man. The police stopped him as he neared their position. His face had the look of someone who realized he had just made a mistake.

Big Bother Is Watching

Defenders of SXSW say that no one is required to attend the festival—just as Evan Smith says you don’t have to be on Facebook—or that you can have fun taking in the films and bands of SXSW Film and Music. Both counterclaims are true enough—but largely beside the point. SXSW Interactive is now the main event, subsidizing the rest of the festival; it’s Samsung, not some music blog, that pays to bring in Prince, the marquee performer at this year’s festival. And more important, SXSW isn’t some discrete event, after which the sponsors pack it all in until next year. It’s a year-round operation. The ideas promulgated there, the companies celebrated and partnerships made, reverberate through an industry that increasingly holds more of Americans’ data, attention, and discretionary income.[*****] SXSW also plays an influential role in the life of Austin and some of its people, like those who work downtown or live outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless.

If SXSW has a political sensibility, then, it’s a very masculinist form of corporatism.

Some of the festival’s featured speakers are noted libertarians, but like much of the festival, they don’t tend to talk about technology’s political or sociological ramifications. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey—an Ayn Rand fan who has said that climate change is “not necessarily bad,” compared unions to herpes, and called the Affordable Care Act fascistic—gave a speech about “liberating the heroic spirit of business.” In his talk about “secret truths,” Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder and committed libertarian, spoke, without apparent irony, in favor of large, government-funded civil engineering projects (the transcontinental railroad, Robert Moses’s New York). Continuing the theme was Russian investor Yuri Milner, who said that “it’s almost a heroic effort” to be an entrepreneur.

If SXSW has a political sensibility, then, it’s a very masculinist form of corporatism. Great men lead great corporations that know what’s best for us. That is also the inescapable message of the festival’s just-in-time built environment. For at least ten days, downtown Austin becomes privatized, a company town controlled by Miller Lite, Google, Doritos, AT&T, and Pepsi. Businesses are temporarily renamed, so that the Cedar Door restaurant becomes the Fast Company Grill and the Champions Sports Bar becomes the Rackspace Open Cloud Experience. Streets are closed except to pedicabs and vehicles from official sponsors.

In this context, police officers aren’t just keepers of the peace. They’re tour guides and enforcers of the corporate ideal. They patrol convention halls and direct attendees. They make sure that sponsorship agreements are respected. In the lobby of the Hilton one afternoon, I watched as a police officer helped break up a marketing stunt—FounderDating, a networking organization, had hired a University of Texas a cappella group to sing a medley—that hadn’t been authorized.

“Hilton is an official sponsor of South by Southwest and this was an unofficial event,” a hotel employee told me. “It’s the bad part of the job, but we have to do it.”

With hundreds of people around, few bystanders even noticed the aborted spectacle. Outside, a rented fire truck drove by promoting Livefyre, a company that runs website comment sections. Young employees leaned out of the truck’s windows, hectoring passersby and tossing them plastic red firemen’s hats emblazoned with the firm’s logo.

Thanks largely to the tremendous marketing cachet of South By Southwest, Austin has become a year-round events city. The country’s thirteenth largest city by population, Texas’s capital is blessed with good weather, excellent restaurants, solid public transportation, and a lively music scene. Austin City Limits, the Republic of Texas Biker Rally, the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival, the Food & Wine Festival—the city is awash with celebrations and shows (and tourists) from about March to November, when Austin’s true religion, UT football, takes center stage. A $400-million racetrack, the Circuit of the Americas, recently opened in southeast Austin, near the city’s airport. In November, the facility hosted the first Formula 1 race in the United States in five years. About 117,000 people crowded into the stadium, with thousands more estimated to have spent the weekend in town. Temporary helipads sprang up around the city to ferry in well-heeled visitors from Houston. In response, the city passed an emergency ordinance limiting the number of helicopter flights allowed per day. “We’re not going to let tourism drive our city past the tipping point,” one city council member told the Austin Chronicle.

All of this has made for a vibrant cultural calendar, but SXSW represents the pitfalls of subordinating the “culture” aspect of this kind of programming to corporate largesse. As Chris Hudlin told me in front of the homeless shelter, “It’s money. Money makes the world go round.”

Disruption for What?

It’s the custom at SXSW Interactive for the event’s closing remarks to be delivered by science fiction author Bruce Sterling. A longtime Austinite, Sterling has been part of SXSW for years (people still talk about the post-festival parties he used to throw) and has become known for mixing rants about the state of the technology industry with savvy predictions about where it’s headed.

Silver hair slicked back, his face puffy but smiling, Sterling took the stage wearing an Arizona State University sweatshirt, its arms riven with holes that he said were produced by lasers—the byproduct of a series of laser experiments he’d been involved in at ASU. Around his neck was a bolo tie whose fastener was a miniaturized, 3-D printed model of himself. In a freewheeling, eccentric, and often brilliant speech, delivered in a croaky voice that recalled The Office’s Kevin Malone, Sterling directed a rare bit of criticism at SXSW and the crowd’s ideology.

About “disruption,” a term that in Silicon Valley receives sacramental treatment, he said: “The thing that bugs me about your attitude toward it is that you don’t recognize its tragic dimension.” That is, e-books and online shopping killed off bookstores, digital music and file sharing wrecked the music industry, Google and Craigslist upended newspapers. New technologies don’t just supplant the old; they change our culture and society; sometimes they destroy more jobs than they create. In his reproof was an echo of Rebecca Solnit: wealth can be cruel and destructive.

Turning to the festival’s undercurrent of techno-utopianism, Sterling said that SXSWers who talk about making the world better “haven’t even reached the level of hypocrisy. You’re stuck at the level of childish naïveté.” He cited author Evgeny Morozov and his critique of technological solutionism—the belief that new digital technologies like smartphone apps and social networking can fix a range of social and political problems. “A billion apps have been sold,” Sterling declared. “Where’s the betterness?”

Through all this Sterling was less a scold than a kind of deeply literate jester. He pivoted from disquisitions on the region’s pre-Columbian civilizations to an elegy for the PC, from arch condemnations to satirical riffs about his own mortality. At times, he laughed more than the audience did, but I was thrilled. This was exactly what I had been hoping for—Sterling’s event was only the second SXSW gathering where I heard the word “privacy”—and yet there was little enthusiasm for it. A small but steady exodus increased as Sterling passed the forty-minute mark.

What those leaving this closing talk, this dark benediction, didn’t seem to realize is that Sterling is on their side. He’s a self-proclaimed futurist, in love with technology and its possibilities, but he’s not deceived by it. He knows that criticism should be part of the bargain, both because it’s socially responsible and because it helps make better, more humane products.

“How can we get past the wow factor?” he asked, his froggy voice turning imploring. “How can we treat it with moral seriousness?

“I think the first step, the proper step, is to accept that our hands are not clean. We don’t just play and experiment. We kill.”

Was this it? Could Sterling, one of the original and best-regarded SXSW participants, someone who even has become an advisor to tech companies, foment a change in the culture? He was insisting that the lords of Silicon Valley—and their customers—desperately need an “ethical turn,” as well as an ideas festival worthy of the name. This was my first in-person Sterling speech, but it struck me as far more critical of SXSW than the ones I had read about.

I turned over these questions as Sterling exited the stage and the attendees, many of them on their way to various closing parties, assembled to head out. A man and woman next to me began debriefing one another. The man made some remark of mild appreciation.

“What’d you think?” he asked her.

She let out a self-deprecating sigh. “I don’t think I have the attention span for that,” she said.


[*] Google, for example, showed off a pair of talking shoes that the company doesn’t intend to bring to market.

[**] An ironic address for an event filled with temporary, low-wage employees taking part in demeaning marketing gimmicks, such as the middle-aged man dressed in tight undershirt and tutu, harp in hand, dancing on a bed for Central Desktop.

[***] This same technology was recently spotted at Logan International Airport, where it’s used to urge travelers to report suspicious activity.

[****] This toilet was by Frog Deisgn, which was also part of the lackluster “More Meaning In Our Digital Life” panel.

[*****] In the case of festival “super sponsor” AT&T, the telecom giant provided technical infrastructure and access for the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program.