South by Southwest: Tricorder Nation

As Conan O’Brien looked out at the capacity crowd for the worldwide premiere of the documentary “Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop,” he couldn’t help himself.

“A lot of hipsters here,” he told the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival crowd (see 8:02 in the YouTube player below). “Could meet a guy in a fedora. With an iPad 2.”

There is truth in comedy. By all accounts, SXSW attendance was up 30% from last year; for the first time, the Interactive portion of the festival has more registrants than Music (which is what originally inspired SXSW’s conception twenty-five years ago). Last year, the hot technology was geolocation, this year gaming pervades, along with all of its elements of motivation and marketing.

Interactive was so jammed that it was hard to make your way easily through the mammoth Austin Convention Center. Many panels were standing room only.

And yes, there were lots of Apple products in the hands of those who were there. On my first afternoon, I nearly ran into an attendee on the street. He had his newly acquired iPad 2 (with green cover), pointed ahead like a divining rod as he made his way across the road. On that same day, I rushed to the Paramount theater to catch the U.S. premiere of the documentary “Senna” (about the famous Formula One driver Ayrton Senna). Still acquainting myself with downtown Austin, I got into the first long line-up I could see.

In line for the iPad 2

“Is this the line for the Paramount?” I asked the person at the end of the line.

“No,” he said. “It’s the next block up.”

Thinking I had stumbled upon another theater, I rushed ahead — only to see a gaggle of blue t-shirted young folk guarding the entrance. I had discovered the makeshift Apple Store, announced at the outset of SXSW, housed in the same downtown building as Gold’s Gym. These people were lined up to get their iPad 2, which had just been released in the past twenty-four hours.

Meanwhile, I sailed into the Paramount Theater, a block up. (The documentary, by the way, was one of the best I have ever seen — a dramatic story told solely through archival footage, in the words of the historic figures).

Some call the ten-day SXSW festival (better known as “South by” among the true aficionados) the “center of the universe” for technology, film and music. The 15,000-plus attendees descended upon Austin to catch the latest and greatest, and network with each other.

There was also an inordinate amount of salesmanship going on. Corporate logos pervaded, it was not hard to get a free Pepsi, grilled cheese sandwich, beer, or even chicken curry courtesy of Fedex.

Fedex delivers the free chicken curry

Despite all of this social energy, I’m growing increasingly disconcerted by the number of bowed heads I see at these kind of events — and in public generally. I had to shout at a man who was pounding away at his screen, even as a car was trying to pull slowly into the parking spot that he was occupying in his oblivious state of digital distraction. I finally got his attention, he walked away slowly, and then he resumed his communique. For those who know me, I’m as guilty of this sort of behavior as anyone else. But at SXSW, I had to conclude that we are fast becoming Tricorder Nation. In the original Star Trek TV series, Captain Kirk used to beam down an “Away Team” to the planet. The first thing they would do was whip out their tricorders to scan for life forms, and then report back via communicator to the Enterprise.

Well in our newly established Tricorder Nation, the Away Team no longer bothers to explore the planet, get into a fistfight with the mean alien, or even seduce the nice one. Rather, it strikes me that we’re in the metaphorical equivalent of Kirk’s team standing rooted in place where they had materialized, stuck in a rut of perpetual tricorder readings and communicator transmissions. That hardly makes for boldly going “where no one has gone before,” does it? Still, I felt compelled to attend “South By” for two reasons:

(1) To connect to people and ideas that might benefit our MCDM program.

(2) To look to the festival for inspiration, as we seek to create an equivalent for the Pacific Northwest that we’re calling Four Peaks.

The technology that we champion and explore in the MCDM, drive the very same devices that now have me convinced that we require more muscular, face-to-face interaction. That’s what we’re trying to develop with Four Peaks with the frank admission that we face a huge challenge with Tricorder Nation. All those bowed heads at the most compelling of live events strike me as the equivalent of writing a letter with PBS on in the background. There’s intelligent content out there in the ether, but you only afford it one of your ears from time to time.

I’m not one for forcing people to shut off their various screens, but it is pushing me to develop this manifesto-in-progress to counteract Tricorder Nation at live events:

1. No panel conversations. They generally suck, it’s hard to give everyone equal time, and there’s generally a huge rush to the doors by the time we get to Q&A.

2. Democratize the room. It’s a layout that I liken to the Elvis Comeback Special of 1968. Put the conversation leaders in the middle of the room — or at least “in the round” — so there’s less of an “us and them” vibe.

3. Recognize that your “audience” are subject matter experts in their own right. They have sometime to teach too. Set the rules of engagement, frame the discussion, then engage them as soon as possible in a public conversation.

4. Create an atmosphere of accountability: we’re all committed to spending our very precious attention capital at this event not just to learn, but to participate. The host and conversation leaders are accountable to the participants. The participants should feel a certain obligation to directly engage in the conversation, or at least further it online. (It’s just too bad that we can’t tweet with our heads up.)

5. Respect the energy in the room. Events have a clear beginning (framing the conversation as opening salvo), middle (the heat of battle) and end (energy flags, concluding thoughts, the gentle retreat). Kenny Rogers got it right: you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

Austin has always been an inspiration to me. It was the turning point in the road trip that we filmed for Independent America in 2005 — “Keep Austin Weird” was such a motivational rallying cry. I decided that wanted to live in a place just like it (albeit with a more tolerable summer), which is why we ultimately ended up in Seattle, the Austin of the Pacific Northwest (which has a less tolerable winter). Even today, I’m full of admiration when I notice that Austin’s international airport’s bookstore is a branch of its very own independent stalwart, BookPeople. If only Seattle-Tacoma Airport could house an Elliott Bay Books rather than yet another Borders.

Ultimately, Austin will also inspire Four Peaks. And yet, lesson learned. SXSW Interactive was good, but not great. It’s too big, too diffused, too distracted — hardly the stuff of community-building. I found myself spending far more time attending the superb film festival screenings. Perhaps it was because there, I was compelled to focus on the story at hand, cellphones, iPads and tricorders happily set aside…at least for an hour or two.

Of course I could hardly deny my true nature. I returned to that makeshift Apple store and purchased an iPad 2 (they didn’t sell fedoras unfortunately). One of the sales reps told me that stock was extremely limited nationwide, so Apple was doing its best to keep inventory at its two most high profile outlets: the flagship 5th Avenue store in New York — and this SXSW branch at 5th and Congress. Center of the universe indeed.

4 comments

  1. Compelling thoughts, Hanson. Been thinking about sending out my own distress signals from this planet where we are all drinking from this firehose of constant information. As one who only looks at SXSW from the web, I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be on the ground. Just trying to navigate the Interactive offerings was daunting, and I found it somewhat comical that multiple apps have been developed to “help you navigate” to the sessions that might be most interesting or productive. And some that take the approach “see where your contacts are checking in” also seems more social than productive.

    I’m also struck by the current “heads-down” aspects of our lives and the fact that it’s darn hard to share a story with the guy obliviously blocking a parking spot. There’s been a wave of face-to-face language in marketing materials that I have seen lately. Maybe it’s a backlash to the tricorder nation as well. You can’t make eye contact with another human if you’re looking down.

    I also share your thoughts that Four Peaks can transcend the chaos by democratizing the discussion and creating an atmosphere where listening and eye contact are welcome and the sessions are more conversation than presentation.

    We’re renting this planet from our kids, and the lessons we teach them about how to communicate will be their paradigm. I’m not ready to have Scotty beam me up to the relative safety of the mother ship, yet, there’s a lot more to do on this planet.

  2. Hanson –

    Some fantastic thoughts here.

    Before I offer my response, I hope your first trip to SXSW was worth it, on the whole. As someone who strongly encouraged your attendance, I feel partly responsible for any negative outcomes.

    That said, I think there is much to be learned from this year’s festival, overload and all.

    It has become clear to me that we have collectively reached a point of technology penetration and media saturation such that our next challenge will be learning to choose and use our tools appropriately.

    While many of the tweets, blog posts, and other media created during those heads-down iPad sessions were done to engage larger audiences not in attendance, how do you balance the benefit of “being present” with the desire to share stories as they are experienced? What opportunities are missed by not being fully present? What pressure is felt by those in attendance to keep their funders or other constituent communities “engaged” on Twitter, blogs, YouTube, Cinch, and other platforms? How does one balance these forces?

    This is where programs like UW’s MCDM, Syracuse’s MSIM, and others can train the leaders and communicators of tomorrow. But outside of the academy, it will be largely up to those in the field – indeed those very attendees who inspired this post – to begin to address the problem head-on (or heads-up, in this case).

    As the iPad transitions from a content consumption device to a content creation device, so too must iPad users. Perhaps this active engagement, this act of creating, is just what we need to pull us out of the depths of the “tricorder trance.”

    And, while Austin may be a source of inspiration, I think it may be best to let SXSW keep it’s title of “Center of the Universe.” For FourPeaks, focusing and localizing will no-doubt go a long way towards building the community that you envision for the Pacific Northwest.

    -Shay

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