There are in fact three very large conferences that overlap each other for 10 days in March. The only one that interested me was SXSW Interactive, a five-day conference that featured emerging online technologies. This was my second time there, and unlike many of those attending, the wild parities lasting until the wee hours and the free beer and wine available starting sometimes before noon were not a big attraction for me, but the chance to interact with thousands of Internet professionals of every stripe was well worth the visit.
A lot of the fun of SXSW is running into big ideas worth thinking about. There were many things to take away from SXSW, but four things that I think are worth sharing are an inspirational talk, a novel use of science fiction, my observation of what technology will have a lot of near term attention and development, and some recommended resources for budding technology entrepreneurs:
- Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think: A talk by Peter Diamandis, Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation spoke rather passionately about the role that technological development will play in overcoming many of the daunting problems facing the world, from clean water, to population growth, to medical care. Many of the ideas were also in his TED talk from early 2012. I also recommend his new book Abundance, which goes into much greater detail. While you are at it, check out what he is doing at Singularity University, an institution he founded with Ray Kurzweil.
- Using science fiction to advance technology: Brian David Johnson, a writer and futurist at Intel, has been involved in bridging the gap between science fiction and science fact by promoting the use of science fiction writing by actual engineers and researchers in order to better understand the impact that an emerging technology may have on society. If this sounds at all interesting, I recommend visiting Intel's The Tomorrow Project where you can download an anthology of science fiction stories from the likes of Cory Doctorow ans will.i.am. You can also reading one of his technical papers on using science fiction to help computer science students understand computer security,
- The role that smart phones will play: If I had to judge where the near term action will be by the number of presentations, the amount of exhibitor space, the level of hype, and apparent venture capital interest displayed at SXSW, it will be the role that smart phones will play both as tools that more people will use to go online and as places where much money will be invested and where many young minds will toil. I won't bore you with the numbers, but I will say that the number clearly show that where there is explosive growth of Internet access in the developing world, it has been through the spread of smartphones in areas where there were barely even telephones 10 years ago. In the rest of the world, when was the last time you saw consumers stood in line to buy something that was not a smartphone or a tablet?
- Useful resources for a startup company: There were plenty of pitches from new companies looking for funding and other backing, and I saw many of them in the Startup America area of SXSW. It was very, very clear that smartphone apps that emphasized social media in a local context were all the rage. Startup America was also clearly funding by many tech heavyweights, and were quite generous at giving out freebies, from candy, coffee, and wine, to a rather interesting book from Steve Blank and Bob Dorf called The Startup Owners Manual. At SXSW, they were free and were practically thrown at people like Mardi Gras beads. However, if you are at all serious about starting an Internet related enterprise or working with a startup company, check out the book. It will be worth whatever Amazon is charging.
P.S. If you're thinking about going to SXSW next year, book your hotel early, and be prepared to have some very long and interesting days.