Intense week at SXSW, starting with the Ed Ward/Jon Lebkowsky breakfast Saturday morning, followed by a Project VRM workshop organized with Doc Searls that afternoon, and much running around Austin that night. Sunday, a core conversation I attended discussed iPad apps for journalism, a good lead-in to the panel I moderated Monday about news apps (standalone apps vs thin client or browser-based data apps). Spent most of Monday revving up the Plutopia event Monday night, which was a smashing success, and included a press conference with Text of Light, David Merrill of Sifteo and Bruce Sterling, where we discussed the meaning of the event’s theme, “the future of play.”
It was like we were thrashing around in our ideas. Some of them might be revolutionary, though none were especially new. For example, I found myself in several discussions about political and governance subjects that felt new when I wrote about them in the mid to late 1990s… they’re still presented as new thinking today in the wake of seemingly effective Middle East protests. But the jury’s still out on those, and governing a protest demonstration, however large and long term and however successful, is not the same flavor as governing a country and plugging it into a new global reality.
I walked into SXSW with a sense that the world is profoundly changing, with the change driven by forces, not by people. It felt like I was in a bubble where time and the world had frozen, a world with its own laws driven by old-school capitalism and marketing. A very pleasant world where so many hoping to attract my attention and allegiance would buy me drinks and feed me really-okay conference food. Last night Asleep at the Wheel was closing down the trade show and I saw a line of people waiting for slices of an enormous cake shaped like Texas. Texas itself is not much of a cake; a state which, like so many other political entities, is overextended and starving for cash. No icing on that cake; very little flour and egg. Mostly a need that politicians were loathe to acknowledge pre-election. Now they’re scrambling to shut down schools and end essential services. No cake there – Texas will be an economic disaster in a decade, because without great schools and a commitment to education, we won’t compete well within the global capitalist economy, if indeed there is one. Things are tough all over; toughest today in Japan, devastated by earthquake and facing potential nuclear meltdown. I heard yesterday that the Japanese at SXSW are stranded here for now, they can’t go back.
The Middle East is exploding with supposed democratic fervor; the energy of democratic revolt is compelling, but there are hard questions ahead, even in if “the people” win. Governance is hard. Democracy is difficult. It’s arguable whether a revolution fixes more than it breaks. You just can’t tell at this stage of the process. The Middle East could be an unstable, unworkable mess for decades in the wake of widespread democratic revolts – this is why the U.S. has tolerated and often propped up dictators there and elsewhere to serve our interest in stability. As a matter of policy, we’ve wanted global stability and sources of cheap labor. The implications of a global middle class are difficult for those who have real power. Those with whole pies socked away aren’t comfortable with the idea of a world where slices of pie will be evenly distributed. Even now they’re driving the dismantling of the American Middle Class, with the full cooperation of ignorant Tea Party zealots who are ready and able to work against their own interests, thinking it’s patriotic to deprive ordinary citizens of education and basic services so that millionaires can become billionaires and billionaires can become trillionaires. We’ve had one of the worst recessions ever and we’re sliding backward, throwing power back to oligarchy even as we rant about the democratization “possible with these great information tools at our disposal.”
That sounds bleak, but I’m still a bit hopeful because so many that I met and spoke with at SXSW seemed smart, sparkly with energy, good-humored and (aside from the Robert Scobles and Tim O’Reillys in the crowd) showing a certain humility, a modesty about their lives and their accomplishments.
And there’s still hot jazz and jammin’ rock and roll in the streets; for that I’m thankful.