The Austin Chronicle

Plutopia: Where Robots and Corn Cups Come Together

By Nora Ankrum, March 11, 2008, 5:31pm, SXSW

The SXSW Interactive party at Scholz Bier Garten brought together a disparate mix of people last night, among them artists, musicians, gamers, futurists, and various techno-friendly types, as well as a few robots, which made their way through the crowd like children who couldn't find the right grownup's leg to hug.

There was also music, free food, masked revelry (admission was free for anyone in costume), and a Maker Faire-esque contingent of groups showing off their pet projects, which included a machine that printed words on ping pong balls; a video game with a curvy, wrap-around monitor; and some of the miniature sets, props, and characters from John P. Funk's short, stop-motion film "Quest for the Dark Planet."

Such oddities are apparently par for the course at these parties, thrown annually by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which seems to have made a lot of friends in its 18 years of crusading for free speech, intellectual property, and privacy rights on the Web.

Last night proved that EFF is busy making yet new friends, as the crowd was arguably more diverse than usual. Departing significantly from last year's Victorian industrial theme (the 2007 party was called "Futures of the Past: A Steampunk Adventure"), EFF opted this year for the more millennial-hippy sounding Plutopia: The Tech Gathering of the Tribes.

The new theme brought with it a new green contingent of participants. Austin Green Art, Greenling, and Good Common Sense all had tables set up, the beer was served in compostable cups made completely of corn, and the evening's headlining speaker was none other than environmental journalist Bill McKibben, who is on tour promoting his latest book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.

Still basking in the glow of his successful Web-based Step It Up campaign, which succeeded last year in focusing legislative attention on cutting carbon dioxide emissions 80% by 2050, McKibben enthusiastically encouraged the crowd to focus now on a new number, 350, the atmospheric parts per million beyond which carbon dioxide levels will cause all kinds of decidedly unpleasant environmental destruction. (See for more.)

McKibben had spoken earlier in the day at the Building a Worldwide Climate Movement panel, one of five eco-focused Interactive panels at this year's conference. SXSWi's new green bent can largely be traced to Austin Green Art founder Randy Jewart, who invited McKibben to town, and blogger Jon Lebkowsky, who encouraged Interactive Director Hugh Forest to include green programming this year.

Lebkowsky is also part of a collection of people who've dubbed themselves "Plutopia" (plutocracy + utopia) and are working on projects complementary to the themes in McKibben's new book, which envisions a future focused on small, local, sustainable economies.

In his talk, McKibben lamented the U.S. trend toward estranged households "the size of junior high schools" and built as far from the neighbors as possible. "We're the richest society in the world," he said, "and we're all hunkered down in our caves staring at our mates." Luckily, if Plutopia the party's motley mix is any indication of what our future might hold, we may be destined for friendlier, if cornier, times.

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