It’s day three of the most interesting convention in the world and I’m sitting two rows away from supermodel Brooklyn Decker, listening to a discussion on women in executive positions in tech start-ups. It’s not something I’d normally have any interest in, but I just found out that a woman designed a bra long before any man did and had it stolen away from her (along with all the financial derivatives) by a man. That kind of story makes the subject fascinating – and that’s the point, SXSW is fascinating. From VR experiences about Philip Treacy hats to keynotes about the future of human genetic engineering, there’s enough brain food (as Stuff publisher, Toby Shapshak calls it) to keep anyone but the wilfully ignorant engaged.
I heard a story about where the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” came from: According to a cab driver there was a homeless alcoholic man called Leslie who used to prance around in a string bikini, using all his charms to persuade the people of Austin to part with their money so that he could spend it on booze. He used to tell them to keep Austin weird. Austin is the capital of Texas, but it’s more San Francisco than San Antonio. After a while, almost everyone in town got to know the homeless guy and he even ran for mayor. He didn’t win, but some tech billionaire bought him a house he refused to move into. That story is weird, but in this town just about everything is. Cycling cheater Lance Armstrong, legendary director Terrence Malick and computer billionaire Michael Dell live there, Twitter was launched there in 2007, and it’s as close to the centre of the digital universe as it’s possible to be (certainly after Silicon Valley).
In Austin, you might end up at a speakeasy chatting to Scarlett Johansson for an hour (this is supposed to have happened to someone two years ago) or eating lunch with the doctor building memory chips that could cure Alzheimer’s and boost human memory capacity to astronomical levels. Star Wars fanboys mix with venture capitalists and a hundred languages are spoken up and down every escalator. For thirteen days, the Interactive, Music and Film festivals of South By Southwest are a lodestone for people who are more interested in tomorrow than yesterday.
This year I got to host a panel with Brett Loubser of WeChat, addressing the opportunities the mobile economy might offer tech businesses, with a particular interest in the work we had both done in the foundation stages of CliffCentral.com. People are interested in Africa, but they don’t know a lot about it, except for corrupt governments, wild animals and raw material exploitation. To expose people to the opportunities that a connected, increasingly tech-savvy burgeoning young population present is a great way to start conversations – conversations that might result in the next Thawt, Bitland, Giraffe or Elon Musk being found.
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On our first night out we found a hot sauce shop that sold some stuff that is so high on the Scoville heat scale that it comes with health advisories. I bought a bottle of Ass Reaper and Dr. Assburn (containing the terrifying Scorpion/Carolina chili pepper) that guarantees a heat of 1,5 million Scoville units. I can’t wait to see if they’re as potent as they’re advertised to be – or maybe I can. There’s a place on 6th Street – which is the main drag for pubs, bars, hidey-holes and drunkenness…
Hang on, some naked people just walked past in the rain under transparent umbrellas. I’m sorry, I got distracted. I’m typing this up at a Starbucks on the corner of 5th Street and I swear, there’s craziness happening in real-time. I don’t want you feeling left out.
As I was saying, 6th Street, just one street up from where I am now, is insane – there’s a place called Buffalo Billiards, where you play games like shuffleboard/air-hockey/dwarf curling (I really don’t know how else to describe it: You slide a heavy disk the size of a fried egg atop a long wooden table sprinkled with fine sand. The object is to get it as close to the far edge without it sliding off. The opposing team try to do the same or knock you off the table), while drinking malt liquor and attempting to chat up the local women – all of whom are wise to any advances. If you like food, you’ll eat like a rescue dog at any number of Mexican, barbecue and fine-dining establishments. The IronWorks will serve up such gigantic beef ribs that the unwary will end up with the meat sweats and pack on weight within minutes.
After that you can learn about the latest non fin-tech Blockchain applications and then attend a workshop on how to build a vibrator – and nobody will think any the less of you for choosing either over a presentation by futurist Ray Kurzweil.
In some way, the smorgasbord of businesspeople, nerds, celebrities, thought leaders, scientists, billionaires and remorseless eaters of Austin represent the leading edge of humanity. They’re the people who will determine the way your future looks and sounds and feels, whether you like it or not. Jump on board baby, or you’ll be dragged along against your will anyway.
See more photos here.