Wednesday, 23 March 2011

SXSW. What the hell was I doing there?

“What the hell are you doing here?”

These were the friendly words uttered by those I met at South by Southwest Interactive on revealing my job title. Ad agency ECD’s are clearly a rare species at the festival.

My answer was always the same: “Trying to keep my job.”

I was drawn to Austin by the certain knowledge of two things:

1. I know how much I don’t know.

2. If I want to continue to put food on the table I need to evolve in same way the way the ad industry is evolving.

And that means immersing myself in the future.

New technologies, new methodologies, new theories. ‘New shit’ generally.

So there I was. Ready. Excited. And two days late because of a pitch I’d had to do in New York.

The geeks had had plenty of time to warm up, so the place was rocking.

On entering the Convention Centre I thought I’d walked into an Apple convention. The iPhone 4 could have been the required admission pass, such was its ubiquity. Macbooks and iPads were strewn on laps, tables and floors, all being tapped earnestly.

Could it possibly have been coincidence that Steve jobs chose Friday the 11th of March, the opening day of the festival, to launch iPad 2? The PR value of having all the world’s geeks in one place was well worth building a temporary Apple Store along Austin’s main drag just for the occasion. And weren't those who’d suffered the queues to nab one were making that fact known? White rimmed iPads were being hoisted as obviously as possibly into the air at the slightest opportunity to take a photo. Such action immediately drawing from the crowd jealous tuts alongside ooohs and ahhhs..

But beyond the tragic realisation that I too was one of those manipulated by the Cupertino Deathstar I was polaxed with the one big issue facing everyone there.

The tyranny of choice.

There were over 50 different things going on at any one time. Over five days. You do the math. (If you can’t be arsed, it’s 1500 hours worth. (If you wanted to see it all, and needed no sleep or food or toilet breaks, it’d take you eight days solid.))

A multitude of venues holding an unending amount of panel discussions, lectures and case studies, not to mention the new-tech demonstrations and various meet-ups.

As Barry Schwartz says 'too much choice can make us feel helpless, mentally paralysed and profoundly dissatisfied and even leave us clinically depressed'.

Clearly I was in for a fun time.

I chucked myslelf in, doing what everyone else seemed to be doing.

I chose something that sounded interesting. Found a seat near the end of a row with easy escape access. Kept scanning the twitter feed to see if anyone was anywhere better, gave it five minutes and if it ended up dull, scuttled out to find a better session.

I received a useful piece of advice from others who had been before. Don’t attend sessions you know too much about. It’ll just frustrate you and you won’t learn much. Choose things that don’t immediately sound like you’ll find them of interest. Like '5 steps to bulletproof UX strategy'. Or 'HTML5. The web’s dead baby'?

Whilst I couldn’t actually bring myself to attend those two, I did see a few interesting things.

A session on the future of augmented reality. Soon, apparently, we’ll be wearing glasses with a built-in heads-up display showing us detail and information on everything around us. Brands will be able to take advantage of this competitively by programming the AR feed into our glasses so ads in real life are changed into virtual ones. Pepsi for example could turn every Coke poster you pass into a Pepsi one. And facial recognition technology will allow us to know everything about the people we see too. The downside of this apparently will be when our political or sexual proclivities are known and we type in ‘show members of the British National Party’ we’ll be able to see them via AR tags as they walk down the street, and beat them up. Hang on. Is that a down-side?

An impressive keynote by Christopher Poole who, seven years ago, when he must have been a foetus, started 4chan, the site responsible for the lion’s share of the entertaining memes flying around the web.

The massive hangar housing the latest in video games. My favourite find being an immersive experieince in which the players have to don gas mask type headgear with screens over the eyes and speakers over the ears and try and escape nasty under-sea creatures.

Guy Kawasaki, one time Apple evangelist, giving an entertaining preview of his latest book ‘Enchantment. The art of changing hearts, Minds and Actions’. My favourite tip: ‘When your boss asks you to do something, drop everything and do it’.

A great panel on the finer points of crowd sourcing with the guys behind Six Items or Less, Victors and Spoils and the 3six5 project. Content management systems, editing and curation being the nut that apparently needs cracking in such endeavours.

Craig Ventor who decoded the human genome and then used that code to create synthetic cells of his own to hopefully eventually help cure disease and feed the world’s hungry. Not a bad use of tech I guess.

Your genetic code. Simples.

A panel of Japanese mobile experts who proceeded to explain to the audience, not only that they are they incredibly rich and, in Japan seen as rock stars, but also why: There are 100 million users of the mobile web in Japan, most of whom seem to spend their time gaming on it. Hence platforms like Gree, the Mixi social phone and the Sekai AR camera app are pissing all over Facebook out there. According to various other speakers at the place, what’s happening in Japan will end up happening everywhere else. The social web? Pah! That’s soooo ‘2.0’. It’s going to be all about ‘gamification’. The friend counts and check-ins we currently tinker around with are just a tantalising glimpse of what’s to come. We play games for three reasons I discovered...: Mastery. De-stress. Socialising. This last one is going to pervade mobile and web usage in the future.

Genevieve Bell, a cultural anthropologist, who talked about smart technology and how smart is too smart. Apparently we’ll shun having our TV or fridge automatically update our status, or our phones automatically check in without asking, telling our friends where we are and what we’re doing. This is because we need ‘layers to our communication’. We 'add a story' to our check-ins. In her words “we lie”. If our TVs told everyone what we were watching and when we were watching it, it would take away our ability to transmit the image of ourselves we really want people to see.

The largest attendance by far, was, interestingly one based around good old ads. The Old Spice case study. Standing room only, people turned away at the door and huge guffaws escaping through the flimsy walls.

That was one of the hundreds and hundreds of things I didn’t see out in Austin.

And the relief of leaving, no longer to be faced with such paralysing choice was bitter sweet.

Some might describe South By Southwest as a “digital wank-fest”.

But I found it fascinating. Mind expanding. Illuminating.

Advertising festivals like Cannes are fine if you want to see what’s already happened.

But they only teach you about the past.

South by Southwest is about the future.

And I for one am more interested in learning what’s going to happen there.