Culture Jamming SXSW 2013


Writing and data science both involve telling stories. In this series, I attempt to convey a human portrait of the tech world by offering a personal account of some of the events that I attend. Recently, I went to South by Southwest Interactive in Austin. (My article about corporate dominance of the event appeared last week in the Washington Post.)

“Dude, bro, I love how you culture jammed Clay Johnson, that was fucking epic!” John Simpkins, 24, fist bumps me at the University of Michigan networking reception at South by Southwest. It is Saturday night in Austin and this is my first time attending the famed tech conference. Earlier that afternoon, I had walked into Clay Johnson’s talk on “The Information Diet.” He had just finished speaking, and on a whim, I went up to the mic to ask a question.

“I’m going to be honest,” I say. “I have no idea who you are, I googled you while I was walking up here, and I’m going to try to ask you a meaningful question.” The audience giggles, and I continue.

“The earliest evidence I can find in the Western tradition for information restriction is in Don Quixote, where the Don succumbs to insanity after a lifetime of reading tales of romance and chivalry. Due to this, Cervantes proposes burning the books of knight-errantry. The only problem with such an approach is that it blocks the door to randomness and prevents serendipitous influences from acting on our lives. How do you reconcile this paradox?” Johnson is unfazed. “The answer,” he says, “is the Wu-Tang clan.”

I flew into Austin from San Francisco on Saturday morning. The first session I attended was entitled “Tweets from the DMZ: Social Media in North Korea” with Jean Lee, Korea bureau chief for the Associated Press. Lee spoke about technology as a double-edged sword that had both democratizing potential and also made it easier for authoritarian regimes to oppress their people. “Kim-Jong Un loves technology,” she tells us, “he has a smartphone.”

Elon Musk is the conference’s keynote speaker; as I make my way down the Austin Convention Center’s main hallway, I pass a line with what appears to be thousands of people. I walk to the front, flashing my press badge at the volunteers. “I’m a reporter,” I say, “I have to meet a source.”

The exuberance inside the auditorium is infectious, like being at an Obama rally, only something genuine is being celebrated here. The crowd goes wild when Elon walks onto the stage, in his cowboy boots, and begins his story about watching his first three rocket launches fail. I am huddled near the foot of the stage with the photographers, a mere 20 feet away from greatness. Despite having lived in Silicon Valley for six months, this is the closest I’ve gotten to the Musk.

The interviewer, Chris Anderson of Wired, has a deer-caught-in-headlights look throughout the session, like a kid in a candy store. I sense the onset of cynicism before a voice in my head speaks up: “this guy is sending rockets into space.” This is like being in an Iron Man movie, I think, these are the new gods, the new idols, of our technocratic society.

Elon speaks about his desire to establish a launch pad in Texas. “We had this dude in Waco,” he says, “who filed a lawsuit against us.” “He doesn’t even live in the same county, he also believes the CIA is listening to his brain waves. We just need a little bit of protection from people like that.” When asked to name his greatest mistake, Elon is surprisingly mushy. “I put too much weight on talent and not enough on personality. It matters if they have a good heart.”

I stick around for Al Gore’s talk which has amusing moments – he talks about spider goats, and takes subtle jabs at the Obama administration for being beholden to special interests. Gore endorses Rand Paul’s filibuster, saying “too much power in too few hands is dangerous.” I get bored when he starts talking about proteomics and exit the arena.

I catch Douglas Rushkoff speaking on “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.” He says, “We have an artificial simulacra of an economy, what we need is a steady state solution.” Even I don’t know what that means so I tweet it with the hashtag #maddeep and leave in a daze. I walk into a session with Nev Schulman (of Catfish fame) who speaks about how chest hair is cool and how we should use digital communities to create real communities. The audience is over 80% female, many of whom compete to thrust their phone numbers at Nev after the session ends.

In the evening, I head over to Ballet Austin for Voice and Exit, an event on “social entrepreneurship and radical community formation,” organized by a few of my friends from the campaign. Here, the latent libertarianism of the technocratic movement is made explicit, with speakers addressing how to live naturally and disconnect from industrialized agriculture and praising the beauty of emergent order.

On Sunday, I vow not to attend any sessions and just walk around talking to people. By the afternoon, I finally have it, the perfect opener, witty, concise, intriguing. I spot a pair of teenage girls sitting next to the west entrance on the first floor of the Austin Convention Center. “Excuse me, I’m a reporter, I have just one question for you,” I announce. “Is South by Southwest a counter-culture event? Or a corporatist event?”

I am greeted by blank faces. This isn’t going well. “Like what does that even mean?” one of them responds finally. “Well, counter-culture would be like ‘let’s fight the man.’ Corporatist would be ‘big companies rule the world, yay.’"

“Definitely the first one,” she says. But there is doubt in her voice. We speak about the nuances and ironies underlying the event, a conversation I repeat with numerous other attendees throughout the weekend that leads to my Washington Post article on the topic.

In the evening, I check out NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope exhibit at the Long Center, an event refreshing for its emphasis on pure science and – on the surface at least – free of overt corporatist influence. Later, I head to 6th Street and end up spending a few hours at a silent disco party (look it up).

Monday’s highlight is the keynote address by Stephen Wolfram, creator of Wolfram Alpha and author of “A New Kind of Science.” Wolfram’s optimism about the future is almost as visionary as Kurzweil’s, only more deeply rooted in reality, which makes it all the more exciting. “We’re close,” he predicts, “to discovering the master program that accounts for the universe - for all of reality.” Mortality is just another equation in need of a closed-form solution. "We need to solve the problem of how to keep the complexity that is a human being running indefinitely,” he says.

After his talk, a small circle of devotees forms around him, and I quickly join in. “I’m a data scientist,” I interrupt, “and most of my work revolves around designing predictive algorithms for Facebook ad targeting in social networks. Are there more exciting problems I could be working on?”

Wolfram responds without skipping a beat. “What we’re working on isn’t just data science, it’s meta data science. We’re developing an algorithmic approach to tackle analytical questions using natural language processing; we’re on the brink of artificial intelligence.” I’m in disbelief: Stephen Wolfram is pitching me. I try to appear unimpressed. “Sounds like you might need good data scientists. I’ll call you if I’m interested.” I hear chuckles in the background and I get a picture before walking away to excitedly tweet about it.

Hamdan Azhar is a data scientist and writer based in Palo Alto, CA. He writes about public policy and the intersection of technology and society.