Edward Snowden's SXSW live chat. (via ACLU YouTube)
There's talk among SXSW veterans that after 20 years the Austin-based annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival has lost its serendipity, that it's become predictable with few surprises for the been there/done that, seen-it-all crowd.
Well, I'm here to set their mind at rest. No way! What began as a music festival has mushroomed into a sprawling multi-layered experience encompassing a mind-boggling array of talks, panels, demos, launches, parties, bands, films, comedy and stuff I'm leaving out but you get the drift. Hotels are booked months in advance and every available space from the mammoth convention center to hotels like the Hilton, Sheraton, Four Seasons, Marriott, Holiday Inn, Hyatt and so forth are crammed with people looking to either be, see, or create the next big thing. From Julian Assange to Edward Snowden to Chelsea Clinton, Seth Meyers, Bill Simmons, Ezra Klein, Nate Silver, Shaquille O'Neil, Nas, Mindy Kaling, Neal deGrasse Tyson, Lena Dunham, the list goes on and on. It's physically impossible to see it all so I'm spending my two days here wandering in and out, noshing the delicacies at the world's biggest brain food emporium.
"Media & The Personal Brand: ESPN, Grantland & 538" is already in session when I join the thousand or so folks watching a conversation between sports authority Bill Simmons, editor-in-chief of Grantland, and Nate Silver, a.k.a. the number cruncher who accurately predicted the last two presidential elections and left his prestigious gig at the New York Times to become a brand. Not surprisingly, the sports guy is doing most of the talking and the cerebral guy mostly thinking, but together they present a united front by example: yes, journalists can use their personal celebrity (and social following) to build a business and transition from taking orders to being their own bosses.
A few minutes to spare before the day's keynote, I head over to the Hilton to catch a half-hour of the Accelerator. Kind of a Shark Tank for techies, entrepreneurs present their apps to a panel of judges and an audience of would-be investors in the hope of attracting venture capital that will turn their fledgling apps into valuable bitcoins. The guy presenting has a decent idea: Using tablets to produce hand-written thank you notes that are printed and mailed within 24-hours. Better than an e-mail, I think. But still not as good as the real thing.
A mutual friend e-introduced me to Brad King (@thebradking) and we meet for coffee. Brad hosts the Accelerator finals on Sunday and has been a fixture at SXSW, making 19 out of 20. He's written for Wired, was senior editor at MIT's Technology Review, is on SXSW Interactive's advisory board and is currently an Assistant Professor of Journalism at Ball State University. He knows a lot and I pick his brain about the state of digital publishing today, especially as it applies to Papermag.com. Takeaway: You can't build a business on Facebook and good stories are what ultimately drive traffic.
Back at the Convention Center the line for Neil deGrasse Tyson is long but moving briskly. Full disclosure: Never heard of him before but the keynote speakers are usually good so I go and raise my eyebrows in appreciation when he's introduced as an astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, the man who demoted Pluto as a planet and host of the new iteration of Cosmos, the TV show made famous by Carl Sagan. As if that isn't enough he's incredibly entertaining, getting laughs distilling complicated scientific concepts into bite-size nuggets. No wonder he was asked to fill Carl Sagan's shoes. Takeaway: He doesn't believe in astrology.
The next morning is anything but a lazy Sunday. A fat schedule of events demand my attention and I opt for "Equipping & Inspiring the Next Generation" with Dean Kamen, best known as the man who invented the Segway. Turns out he's done lots of other things, too: he holds more than 440 U.S. and foreign patents, many of them for innovative medical devices. A repeat presenter, he updates the audience about ongoing products like a robotic arm that an amputee or soldier who has had his arm blown off can use to pick up a grape and eat it. He also hypes FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), his non-profit that works with kids to get them into science. Today he's most proud of a purifying station he's invented for countries with undrinkable water, teaming up with Coca-Cola's vast distribution network to get it where its needed. Coca-Cola wants the devices and the stations painted Coca Cola red but are otherwise glad to support the program. Question: Mr Kamen, how do you feel teaming up with a company at least partially responsible for the world's obesity epidemic because it markets carbonated sugar-loaded drinks to kids.
Next stop: "Running the Show: TV's New Queen of Comedy" with star, head writer and show runner Mindy Kaling and her Mindy Project co-stars Adam Pally and Ike Barinholtz. Kaling is not only a star but an inspiration for young women who feel stifled in a man's world, one of a small group -- along with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Lena Dunham -- who are breaking the glass ceiling. Clearly hanging on to her every word, fans of The Office who have moved on with Mindy to her new home, are in heaven until the mood turns with a question from a member of the audience along the lines of "why aren't there more people of color on the show?" Kaling, of Indian descent, bristles, countering that she's asked that question more often than any show runners with all-white casts. Why is that?
Afterwards, I walk in and out of a discussion between Silicon Valley veteran John Battelle and Sundar Pichary, VP of Google Product Management about Android, ChromeCast and all things googly. It's too dry and techie so instead I head over to a small room designed for 15-minute presentations and catch the tail end of "Hacking Hollywood" by Ralph Echemendia -- "The Ethical Hacker." As Hollywood increasingly incorporates multiple technologies in their production workflows, the threats of leaks and security breaches proliferate. To my delight and horror, he live hacks a home computer and blithely declares that everyone will be hacked sooner or later. Disturbing.
He's followed by Alex Winter, the actor (Bill and Ted's Incredible Adventure)-turned-director/producer of Downloaded, a feature documentary on the rise and fall of Napster and the birth of the digital revolution. He is currently working on a new feature documentary, Deep Web: The Untold Story of Bitcoin and The Silk Road. His passionate talk, "The Battle for the Digital Frontier," calls for groups like the RIAA (Recording Industry) to stop going after their consumers in the name of protecting copyright. Better encryption, he argues, will go a long way to protect citizens and businesses from having their secrets stolen. Who will win the epic battle between the promise of a powerful global community that allows for free speech and the democratization of world culture vs. the side that sees only a destructive force that cripples businesses, kills culture, promotes piracy and facilitates dysfunctional social behavior?
From there, I go with Winter and his producer Marc Schiller to a beautiful landmark home in Austin for a Cole Haan sponsored panel "What Drives You" where we join Forbes tech writer Andy Greenberg and Aparna Mukherjee, journalist and social media editor at McKinsey. Moderated by the smooth-talking Schiller, we move from the personal to the paranoid with Greenberg delving into the dark arts of the Internet, Mukharjeee's deep web musings, Winter's encryption advocacy and my popular culture/politics cross-over perspective. Take away: America's apparent complacency in the face of government spying is turning into active opposition. (See Sen. Diane Feinstein's recent reaming of the CIA for spying on her committee.)
Last but definitely not least, I go to the W Hotel for the premier of a trailer for a 40-minute documentary that will kick off a campaign for what may be one of the most significant undertakings launched at SXSW this year. Commissioned by American Express, the campaign and film aspire to do no less than re-imagine the banking system. According to Dan Schulman, Group President of Enterprise Growth at American Express, his company is moving from exclusive to inclusive, looking to help a large community of hard working people without access to traditional banking services. The documentary by Waiting for Superman and An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim visibly moves the audience with its empathy. Schulman speaks eloquently of the challenges ahead and assures some gentle skeptics in the crowd of American Express' committment to the cause. To be released this summer, "Spent" will be used to spread the word in local communities as well as in Washington, with the hope and expectation that legislators will be similarly moved and respond to the challenge.
The day I leave, an Edward Snowden interview is streamed into Austin and thousands of journalists and tweeters go into action, spreading the word across the globe. Snowden is eloquent, measured, far from crazy or impetuous. To many here -- and across the globe -- he's a hero, a rock star who successfully took on the U.S. government and lifted the veil on U.S. spying. He says that when he took his job with the NSA he swore to uphold the Constitution. And when he saw that the government was violating the constitution, he had to take action. I'm glad he did.