On Monday, outside an exhibition hall at the 2014 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, I witnessed a young tech exec quarreling with someone on her smartphone. Wired—literally, figuratively—she tripped over a cane strapped to the wrist of an old man. Making a quick recovery, the exec nattered on while shaking her fists at the guy with the cane. To her great annoyance, he kept walking, oblivious. He was, after all, blind.
Irony of ironies: SXSW is a communications gathering that eloquently expresses the failure of expression and communication. As Samuel Beckett once put it, "There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express—together with the obligation to express."
Since its modest beginnings in 1987 as a local music hoedown, the fest has mutated into SXSW Interactive (tech and digital presentations, trade shows, lounges, panels), SXSW Comedy, SXSW Gaming Expo, SXSW Film and, this year, the TV-centric SXSW Film: Episodic. (Highlights: a speech by Lena Dunham of HBO's Girls, and the world premieres of Penny Dreadful, Showtime's psychological thriller, and Deadbeat, a supernatural sitcom on Hulu—not a Lifetime exposé of dads who don't pay child support.)
This year's sprawling iteration drew an estimated 30,000 nerds and embraced Mashable Meme bashes, trucks that dispensed prints of Instagram selfies, a Google Hangout with NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden and a Skype-athon with alleged "sex-by-surprise" enthusiast Julian Assange. After The New York Times marveled at SXSW's transformation from music festival to hashtag, I asked director Richard Linklater if Austin had changed much since he filmed the 1993 eight-track epic Dazed and Confused there. "Not at all!" he said, flashing a smile that glowed brighter than the lights on the Moon Towers.
Everywhere festival-goers went, they were encouraged to over-share and surrender their privacy. Snowden's assertion that the NSA is "setting fire to the future of the Internet" was borne out in SXSW's fixation on digital smoke and Google Glass mirrors.
Everywhere people were asked to scan their badge, tweet, tag themselves or download apps, which pulsed and swirled in demonstration booths, on sidewalks and in cafes. R.J. Reynolds set up vapor-smoking lounges and tents. One rep described the "VUSE Nicotine Delivery Device" to me as the "smartphone" of cigarettes: Unlike Stone Age e-cigs, it tracks your puffs and number of inhales. Still, he wasn't sure if VUSE's NDD could cause digital lung cancer.
An app could get you a free conference call or a free lunch from a food truck on Trinity Street. If you were more amped than apped, you could check in at the Nest Lounge, a way station to recharge your cell, rehydrate your body and relieve your headache (free Advil). A Nest fire truck was rigged with panic buttons like the one Zach Galifianakis has on "Between Two Ferns." Punch it and steam issued from a vent while Siri's sister alerted you to a Smoke Situation. All this was for the benefit of Nest Protect, a Wi-Fi-connected smoke alarm that won't wail like a Foghat tribute band every time you burn a bagel.
When it came to new features on old apps, few garnered as much buzz as Highlight, once touted as the pioneer of SoMoLo (social, mobile, local) and "ambient reality."
According to the company website, "As you go about your day, Highlight runs quietly in the background, surfacing information about the people around you. If your friends are nearby, it will notify you. If someone interesting crosses your path, it will tell you more about them. Highlight gives you a sixth sense about the world around you, showing you hidden connections and making your day more fun."
Just like in the M. Night Shyamalan movie, this sixth sense comes at a cost: Many of the techies who downloaded the latest version at SXSW wound up shutting it down or uninstalling it. Highlight reportedly saps iPhone batteries faster than a college frat drains a keg. Perhaps to offset this failing, Highlighters cruised Austin in an ice cream truck and handed out GoodPops, a locally made treat that comes in Girls-friendly hibiscus mint, chocolate milk and watermelon agave.
Hackers who subsist solely on Oreos tended to congregate at the Oreo Trending Vending Lounge, where 3-D printers cranked out cookies based on Twitter trends. Sadly, Oscar Mayer was not on hand to offer demos of its sizzling, new "Wake Up & Smell the Bacon" gizmo, which plugs into the headset jack in an iPhone and syncs with an iPhone app. The bacon-scented alarm is said to be the brainchild of the wiener outfit's Institute for the Advancement of Bacon. (To my knowledge, Anthony Weiner is not yet promoting a men's underwear-scented app.)
The online-privacy panel met not far from the Cottonelle Toilet Tissue Lounge, where conventioneers literally got the bum rush. For tweeting the hashtag #LetsTalkBums, you were entitled to free makeovers, massages, hair touch-ups and wet cloths that gave new meaning to the term "screen wipe." On paper this may have sounded like a good idea. In practice, Cottonelle's attempt to make a festival splash was a bit strained. Come on guys - your tent had no bathroom!
A Cottonelle brochure invited visitors to name an OS after the brand. Would it be too impertinent to suggest the Crap App?