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SXSW Interactive: Jon L.'s Debrief
Jon Lebkowsky, 23 Mar 04

This year at South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive I was producing a track called "Wireless Future," plus sitting on a couple of non-wireless panels, so I was more focused on administrivia and didn't get a complete sense of the conference. However from the pieces I did catch, the conversations in the halls, my own participation in panels and the overall vibe, I picked up impressions that I'll share here.

Social software and political technology are converging. The Dean campaign was a symptom of this (not a cause, as many people seem to think). No way is this new, but it's more visible, more mainstream, and lit by the excitement around blogging – so to some people it seems new.

There was huge interest in presentations by Moveonsters Eli Pariser and Zack Exley, Joe Trippi's presentation (which I missed, though it was probably similar to his well-documented talk at the Digital Democracy Teach-in in San Diego), and the Emergent Technology panel that Joi Ito and I put together. The latter got mixed reviews because we weren't as focused as a group as we might've been (our greenroom discussion was better, I think, than the panel itself). However this is new ground, we haven't quite figured it out yet. The emergent democracy concept was that issues, opinions, and movements would from from the bottom up via weblogs and other online communication tools and feed into the democratic conversation. Those who think democracy is all about elections miss the point. If your understanding is that democracy is about who we are as a people and what we're deciding to do based on some kind of informed consensus, then it makes more sense. We have a representative democracy where elected officials should mediate the popular will, but that's not so much the case if the popular will is tacit or unformed. Emergent democracy is about connecting people in conversations that facilitate thinking about issues and participation in the political process by which those issues are decided. With broadcast politics our heads are fed at the media trough and we (the big "WE") don't really discuss or think about issues in a meaningful way. However with the Internet we have an evolving post-broadcast politics which is highly interactive and involving, and through which we might have broader participation in governance.

Wireless is catching on in powerful ways. As wireless technologies evolve we can imagine ubiquitous peer to peer computing and mobile access via portable devices to all the world's knowledge and everybody on our growing and morphing social networks. There's the down side, o'course – the security and privacy issues, the chaotic aspect of everybody-always-on, the potential for overstimulation, net.crime, and obsession with the trees at the expense of the forest. After all, Utopia is just a small town in Texas and there's never any panacea for the human condition in any environment including the nebulous Future. But the benefits appear to outweight the costs, so wireless is increasingly popular, sexy, buzzworthy, and profitable.

I worked on SXSW Interactive and Wireless Future, and at the same time helped with the O'Reilly Teach-in, so my head's been in conference-space for many weeks now, and I've been thinking about this nomadic community of people who attend several conferences a year while building and sustaining relationships that are supported by virtual tools like email, chat, and instant messaging. This is another piece of the puzzle: group-forming that's partly virtual and partly physical, and our ability to leverage the Internet to become casual members of groups that never would have existed in the first place if not for the global network and all the communications tools that run on it. Social software tools emerging over the last couple of years have made my life sort of like a Fellini movie where everybody comes together at the very end while Nino Rota's jamming in the background. Ay, Marcello... I'm finding everybody I ever knew online, it seems. John Quarterman, who was showing maps of the Internet years ago and who wrote The Matrix, a book that cataloged pieces of the Internet plus systems that shared mail over the Internet, was on the final Wireless Future panel, "Wireless and Grassroots Innovation," and I was realizing that wireless is technology for extending the network we all know and love, nothing more or less.

At one point I shot a photo of Joi as he shot a photo of me with his phone and moblogged it to his site within seconds. We're just all over the place, and sometimes that's hopeful.

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You realize, of course, that I wrote about the differences between one-to-one, oen-to-many, and many-to-many communications in The Matrix, and that many of us were combining online groups and offline physical meetings back in the early 1980s, with floating conference attendees going from USENIX stateside to EUUG in Europe to JUS in Japan joined together in between by the networks, which were plural back then, UUCP, FidoNet, BITNET, EARN, Internet.

It's surreal to me to see the stuff I was using starting back in the 1970s (chat and IM are just Unix talk on steroids, mail has been around since 1973, and mailing lists were forming communities at least as early as 1978) finally extended beyond the early bleeding edge artsy and activist adopters of the 1980s to the greed is gooders of the 1990s to the fashion statement populism of the early naughties. Networking technology has always been socially useful, but eventually it takes colors to make an iMac acceptable to more people.

Indeed, wireless is yet another means of extending the network we already know, producing more groups in teh process. The network that has already changed the world in many and subtle ways. Half the people I know in the world at large now act like the people I had to go to Harvard and MIT to find in the 1970s.

It's too bad Dave Weinberger didn't talk about his
book on the panel; Small Pieces Loosely Joined is very relevant to wireless.

Panel pictures by jonl here:


Posted by: John S. Quarterman on 26 Mar 04



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