Is SXSW Interactive the nerdiest place on earth?
The conference, which brought over 30,000 busily networking techies from all over the globe to Austin for the past four days and winds down today, is a place where the superstar attractions were NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Mythbusters host Adam Savage and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who referred to the confab as "geek central."
The conference drilled down into topics like The Future of Genetics in Everyday Life, Your Next UX Skill: Prototyping with HTML and Combinatorial Creativity: The Future of Innovation. Wearable computers and The Internet of Things, computers that talk to each other without human involvement, were big topics of conversation.
At Interactive, even jocks are dorks: Shaquille O'Neal was in Austin on Monday, proclaiming "I'm a geek" and talking up wearable technology like the Fitbit step-counting device he wears on his wrist. When ESPN hotshot journalists Nate Silver and Bill Simmons spoke, Simmons looked out at the crowd and proudly said "This is a big room. Not bad for a couple of nerds."
Though Interactive has been SXSW's biggest growth area for the past decade, director Hugh Forrest, whose been in charge of the conference since it debuted in 1984 wth roughly 300 registrants, said this year's gathering is only slightly bigger than it was in 2013.
"We had a 10 year cycle of dramatic growth," Forrest said in an Interview on Sunday. "We've started to hit some hard limits with hotel rooms in Austin. And we've understood that it's maybe not the best thing to be growing as fast as we were for as long as we were." To absorb some of that growth in a place with hotel rooms to spare, organizers have started a new conference, focusing on tech start ups, called SXSW V2V, that is held in Las Vegas in July.
Forrest says that, yes, SXSW Interactive is the geekiest place on earth, "and we say that with pride, we say it with honor."
"We've been very lucky," Forrest says. "One of the things that i would never have guessed or imagined that has helped fuel our growth in the last 10 or 15 years is that geeks have gone from pejorative - "You're a geek" - to a positive. "Maybe not in every sense. But Mark Zuckerberg is covered in People magazine.When Steve Jobs died it was like when John Lennon died. That myth of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who goes form hacking in his garage to a billion dollar exit two years later is extremely powerful and extremely sexy, and that has, for better or worse fueled a lot of the interest in an event like SXSW."
(It's also mocked in Silicon Valley, the new Mike Judge comedy for HBO that premiered at SXSW Film, which is being advertised by every pedicab driver in town this week.)
"There's that Marc Andresssen quote: 'Software is eating the world'," says Forrest. "Everything is a technology company now. A music company has to be a technology company, a film company, a health care company, a car company. Fiften years ago when we were struggling to get bodies in the door it was hard ot imagine that Interactive would become this much of a driver or this popular."
Forrest claims he's not very tech adept himself - "I have trouble turning on my computer" - but we was wearing a Narrative Clip on his lapel, the lightweight device smaller than the gizmo Joaquin Phoenix sticks in his pocket in Her, which takes a picture every thirty seconds throughout the day, meaning he took about 40 pictures of me during our conversation.
"It's nothing personal," he says, laughing. "The whole concept is to do something that's not intrusive and is intuitive."
"If you're talking about wearable computing" he goes on. "Within two years there'll be a shirt on the market with sensors in it that will immediately contact my doctor is my heart beat is irregular and I'm in danger of having a heart attack. That is also indicative of this Internet of Things, which is things that are are connected via the Internet rather than humans; i.e. your car becomes a connected device that can interact with the dealer."
The other trend is increased focus on web security, for which Monday's Snowden talk served as a "call to arms," There were many panels about being watched, including one entertaining and chilling one called Surveillance On The Silver Screen, which showed clips from movies like the 1998 Will Smith vehicle Enemy Of The State that seem prophetic in retrospect.
"Largely I think the with privacy stuff the genie is out of the bottle,"Forrest says. "That said, I think we can create some kind of standards that should be best case practices in terms of what information companies can see and what kind of information the government can see. There are a lot of sessions on this topic, and some privacy related start-ups have launched here. Geeks can sense a market, so I'm sure there are people working on it."