The not attending SXSW grump report

Maybe I'm getting too old, maybe I'm getting too cynical or maybe...it's because I've seen it all before.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Maybe I'm getting too old, maybe I'm getting too cynical or maybe...it's because I've seen it all before.

In thinking about the tsunami of gushing words about SXSW I can't help but remember the Summer of Love and how 'we' were all going to change the world. Guess what? We all grew up and became part of the corporate machine. Nothing changed. If anything, I'd argue that 'our' generation contributed to making things worse not better. Think I'm wrong? Check your pension fund - if it has any value left and ask this: how old were the Wall Street guys back in '68 who recently sucked up your TARP dollars? How about checking the ages of those leading Google, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle etc. I'm picking on them deliberately. Why? Because one way or the other they're sacrificing innovation for the lawcourts. Is that what the Summer of Love really taught us?

Is SXSW any different? I think not. At least not once you get them out of the artificial, slightly insane, booze fuelled and self absorbed environment that is SXSW. Are those reporting SXSW capable of standing back and looking at the reality of what goes on in the world? From this distance it is pretty hard to see anything vaguely objective.

My favorite piece comes from Hugh MacLeod: he's honest when he says:

A lot of companies sponsor parties, so as long as you have a pass, it’s pretty easy to go the entire five days without ever paying for a single drink or meal. Plus with all the young singles everywhere, everybody’s trying to get laid. X-thousand geek twenty-somthings trying to hook up en masse is pretty entertaining to watch. By Sunday or Monday everybody’s a basket case.

Hugh is there as part of the 'art' set and with SXSW's focus it should be a great show for him. Hugh knows it will be good for business because he has assiduously carved out a great niche as the cool kids' Jackson Pollack. In similar vein, Andrew Keen has worked himself to the position of being SXSW's Timothy Leary...but without the personal intake of mind altering chemicals as far as I know. These are people I would like to see on any stage. Funny, erudite, intelligent. But in reality they're preaching to the choir.

Francine Hardaway makes a valiant effort at providing us with the essence of Andrew's presentation on the topic of innovation. In the process though she misses a golden opportunity to critique Andrew's thinking:

...he provoked much thought inside me on the nature of innovation. Everyone says we need more of it — but do we? Can we really absorb any more of it? I’m an innovator, an early adopter, a change-junkie. But what about the people around me?

In the course of an hour, Andrew covered the history of philosopy from Socrates to social media, pointing out that throughout history man has searched for ideal forms that don’t change, and has still been caught up in the whirlwind of change. And every century, the pace gets faster.

This, of course, is my “objective” interpretation. Andrew’s more controversial position is that we worship innovation for its own sake, especially at SXSW, without remembering that with all change there are winners and losers. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the peasants lost, and the manufacturing giants won. Now the current wave of innovation is washing over, for example, the newspaper industry, and the “crowd” appears to be winning.

Is it? Let's look at the examples:

  • Newspapers - sure, they're having a tough time but that's more about delivery than content.
  • Toyota - sure, they screwed up but to equate that to 'the crowd' is a massive stretch. TV exposure? Sure - I'll buy that.
  • A cadre of elite so-called A-list bloggers as thought leaders? Fanciful at best. Outside the SXSW/Silicon Valley bubble it is hard for me to find anyone who knows any of the so-called A-listers. Go check 'em out. As I've said over the years and on many an occasion: we can all be famous for 5 seconds but in reality nobody cares beyond those who have a vested interest in a particular niche.

At this point in Francine's reporting, it seems that Andrew drifted off into a never-never land of future think. There are parts of what he says that I wish could become reality, especially his thoughts around resolving the healthcare mess. The problem is I just don't see it. Having met and spoken with Andrew, I sense the rhetoric has become a deliberate pastiche of Andrew's own sense of history. It's there to invoke the hidden passions of those who listen. If nothing else it helps to ensure the next book becomes a million seller.

The difficulty all revolutions of the kind Andrew espouses face is that we end up with the same power-elite structures we've seen over and over again. The enterprise software world is a wonderful micro example where the things that ail certain companies are obvious for all to see - except those basking in the glory of past success. Do the SXSW crowd truly believe that the next Google will behave any differently from the current one? It is only when vested interests - and here I am thinking of user groups - wield economic power that things change. As far as I can tell, that hasn't happened in the world of the socially aware. At least to no great extent.

At this point I cannot resist having a little fun at Andrew Mager's expense. In his report of Gary Vaynerchuck's presentation Andrew starts with:

The absolute best talk at South By Southwest is Gary Vaynerchuk’s. Last year, I captured all of his great quotes, and this year I’m doing it again. It’s sort of like a Bible for how to be successful. Vaynerchuk’s authenticity redefines the world.

Really? Again, Gary is someone I've seen perform and there is no doubt he has the passion to whip up a crowd as good as any street corner peddler. Don't get me wrong - selling is...selling and Gary is a master of the art. But there is something intensely worrying about praising a person who comes out with:

Real dead and simple: companies don’t give a f**k. They don’t care about users enough. Like when somebody like Zappos gives a solid f**k, we go crazy. I think that caring is massively underrated.


You have to do good first. That’s the only way you are gonna convert. Back in the day, when the douchebag gatekeepers controlled the market, it was hard to penetrate, but now we all broadcast. Word of mouth works now, much more than ever. @-reply every single person.

If history serves me correctly, the last person who made those statements with any significant following ended up getting nailed - literally. Of course I could be utterly wrong. Perhaps the social computing tools about which so many rave really will bring good to the world. I'm just not that hopeful.

I recall last year a dear friend asking if I was going to SXSW. I wasn't but they were incredibly hopeful of positive outcomes. I remember cautioning to set expectations carefully. (I'm nothing if not a consistent sourpuss.) It didn't work out remotely as well as they thought. Expectations not met or disappointment that it wasn't all it was cracked up to be? Looking at what I've seen so far this year, the hype has gone into overdrive. Shark jumping time? I don't know though I guess we'll find out in a week or two when the hangovers have given way to the reality of plowing a furrow in a tough world.

Perhaps instead I need heed what Francine says in closing her piece:

The celebratory party atmosphere at SXSW is a Mardi Gras mask that hides the incredible change through which we are now living. As Keen reminded me yesterday, “history is written by the winners.” SXSW is a convention of winners. Survivors. Darwinians. Swimmers afloat in the real time swim.

Life jackets may be in order for everyone else.

Again - is this true? Last time I checked it seemed to be Goldman Sachs that's doing best with everyone else eating crumbs. In the meantime, I'm taking Hugh's other advice - Ignore Everybody.

Endnote/followup: It's interesting to see Evan Williams and Umair Haque getting panned by the Twitterati. I've never listened to Evan so can't say whether he's dull or not. I have listened to Umair - a number of times. He talks about important stuff. It's interesting for those that ears to hear.

Editorial standards