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SXSW Part 1: the Spectator (published on Medium in 2019)

2019 was wonderful compared to when I went years ago — seriously, the days of “social media marketing” being the hot topic were the days of me dodging around trying to find meaningful talks. I think I spent those few years finding the design methodology talks and the few useful social good talks.

This year was a great change. There were talks on from astronomers, AI researchers, speculative design, i.e., all the things that I find interesting in my day-to-day life. I got to indulge in a talk by architect Bjarke Ingels discussing the future with hope, discussing ways to build permanent colonies on Mars, proposing real ideas for affordable and accessible housing in crowded expensive coastal cities, and suggesting ways of building floating cities that resembled nothing so much as a large snowflake.

My favorite surprises are when I find something beautiful in something I have previously found utterly unworthy of my attention. I’ve never really cared that much about AR/VR because so much of it’s hype is in gaming or porn — it’s cool if people are interested in that, but I simply am not. But in the AR/VR room at the Fairmont this year, I found something to appeal to my little historian/cartography nerd heart.

Since this was the first VR I’d ever tried, I will admit being a bit bleary-eyed afterwards. But this is exactly the reason people should come to SXSW. It made me see how a new technology has so much potential to really do great things.

Even the Expo hall was enjoyable. For one thing, the schwag has significantly improved over the years. Instead of cheap t-shirts available only in men’s sizes, there was a map of Antarctica courtesy of the NSF booth, a beautiful pop-art inspired poster from the SVA in New York, well-crafted pencils and Bauhaus postcards from a booth highlighting Germany’s strengths as a tech hub. Also, the male nursing aide I saw from Japan’s Dentsu was startling and left me wondering if men would actually use it.

There are only two major downsides to SXSW, and these have remained unchanged. One, the freely flowing booze and how alcohol seems to fuel so many conversations and gatherings. Since I don’t really drink a lot anymore, I found the one dinner I was invited to more tedious than I wanted to deal with. It was boring being the sober person in a room full of people getting drunker by the moment. I can’t even imagine if you don’t even socially drink a bit as I do. SXSW must be less than appealing to those who don’t drink for religious or other reasons.

The second issue with SXSW is not an uncommon one for me. It’s focus is so heavily on white folks it’s just weird. The expo floor had a decent international crowd, with booths from Japan and China, and even an offbeat booth from someone representing the Mississippi Delta. But the past comparisons of SXSW to Burning Man are not untrue, as both skew towards a primarily white left-leaning demographic that is often only too smug about their own superior intellects and creativity (and no, this certainly isn’t everyone. I know great people who participate in Burning Man and SXSW, but those few rotten apples give the whole barrel a bad taste).

On the whole though, the event is a vast improvement over my last experience there. SXSW is the kind of place you can indulge your inner dork in oh so many ways: from digital typography to astronomy, you can find a talk or panel on it. I only wish I had had more time this year to indulge it.

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