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SXSW Day 1: Merging Art and Technology

What people are really looking for at SXSW is a better battery.
March 9, 2007

There are nerds with plugs scattered throughout the 900,000-square-foot Austin Convention Center.

Thousands stream into the Austin Convention Center at the start of the SXSW Interactive Festival. Once they’re registered, the hunt is on for outlets–because most attendees come packing several devices.
Credit: Brad King

That’s not entirely accurate. There are nerds with cords. Many of those cords are attached to battery packs, but there are a sizable number of other cables. I know this because I am one of them. I’m sitting in Ballroom E with my Dell Latitude (and power cord), my Kodak EasyShare Z740 (with lithium-ion battery and PC connector cord), my PalmTreo 650 (with power and sync cords), and my Logitech USB Headset 350 with Microphone (and the attached USB cord).

It’s the first day–the first hours–of registration at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Music, Film, and Interactive Conferences and Festivals, a 10-day confab that runs from March 9-18, and the nerds have already staked out the corners and crannies near power outlets.

It’s strange. While consumer electronics and software have changed immensely in the 13 years of the conference, there is one thing that hasn’t changed: the need for batteries and power cords to recharge them. Throughout the next week, tens of thousands of people will find their way to the convention center, and there won’t be enough outlets for everyone.

In his seminal book Being Digital, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte described the cords and batteries he packed when he traveled the world. That pack, he wrote, was nearly as heavy as the gadgets he took with him. And today, it’s still a horrific problem for those who have gone mobile, who rely on their technologies to connect them with their equally mobile peers.

When I worked at Technology Review, I dubbed editor Kevin Bullis “Battery Boy” because he’d just started writing about battery and fuel-cell technologies. I found (and continue to find) his stories fascinating and necessary because anyone who travels knows that lugging around cords and battery packs is awful. Deep into the technology revolution, when I’m supposed to be untethered, I’m sitting here next to an outlet because my computer only has two hours of juice.

However, there’s more to the SXSW experience than simply staking out areas of the convention center. SXSW held the inaugural Music and Media Conference and Festival in 1987. The event showcased smaller, independent groups and acts from small labels. For a time, it was the event for those of us who covered music. The major record labels and national media were quick to pick up on two things: the weather in Austin is better than the weather where they lived (San Diego excluded), and the networking opportunities (read: parties) were amazing. By 1994, SXSW had grown so much that the company decided to launch two other programs: the SXSW Film Conference and Festival and the SXSW Interactive Festival.

It’s a bit difficult to see how these three disparate ideas can work together. Music and film are creative endeavors. Technology is not. At least, that is what I’ve been told. I disagree, but more important, the SXSW folks did too.

The interactive festival and conference not only celebrates creative Web-based applications and design, but this year it will focus on three main areas: mainstream media’s toe dipping in the “new media” realm (complete with a keynote by Dan Rather, famously smacked by bloggers who questioned CBS News’s reporting on President George W. Bush’s war record), Web 2.0 applications, and virtual worlds with interactive storytelling (which includes The Sims creator Will Wright discussing Spores, his latest project).

It’s the interactive storytelling panels that are most intriguing for me. The deeper I’ve gone into the Web, the more “stories” have become important, whether it’s the story of a website and its graphical design or the story of a backend content management system (CMS). I’m working with a programming team at Northern Kentucky University to build a flexible, interactive CMS for news organizations that will facilitate traditional and citizen journalism. As we designed the databases and mapped out the functionalities, we had trouble understanding how each component works together–and how it must interact with other sections of the database no matter which way a user comes into the system–until we started looking at nonlinear storytelling, such as that found in games like The Sims.

These interactive narratives are similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books that were popular in the eighties. As we’ve started to deconstruct narratives (in our CMS project, the story is the functionality of each section of the database), we’ve been able to better understand how the system should work. Is that a story in the traditional sense? I’m not sure if I can answer that question yet. My gut as a writer says no. My nerd brain, though, says that there are enough similarities in how you construct a website’s graphical user interface, how you construct a database, and how you tell a story to blur that definition. The only difference that I can see is that the tools used are different: Photoshop, words, and code.

That may be a bit too esoteric for most attendees (and possibly even for me). There are far more common crossovers among the interactive, film, and music festivals and conferences. There is a big push to educate artists, small studios, and independent labels about Net neutrality. Henry Jenkins, MIT’s Comparative Media Studies chair, will be speaking about distribution and the importance of maintaining a free and open Internet pipeline that creators can use.

Of course, this being Austin, there’s also a push to integrate emerging energy technologies into the festival. This year, SXSW is making a move to be “carbon neutral,” which means the organization is working to overhaul how the entire affair is powered. For instance:

1. Texas Energy audited the main offices of SXSW, which led to an overhauling of the heating, cooling, and lighting units;

2. the Festival and Iconology Action of Austin will be recycling the piles of waste generated during the evening parties;

3. the generators and production trucks will all run on biodiesel; and

4. the festival purchased $5,000 in wind energy credits.

There’s much more to tell (and we’ll do that over the next week in the blogs); for now, though, my battery is about to die and I need to go stake out my little corner of the convention center.

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