Information Wants to Be Worthless

SXSW interactive and the post post-boom landscape

Bruce Sterling takes stock of the situation.
Bruce Sterling takes stock of the situation. (Photo By Kenny Braun)

I can't wait for this next South by Southwest Interactive. I don't know why they still call it that, though. They used to call it "Multimedia." Now even "Interactive" sounds corny.

If I were them, I'd rename the event every year. This year in particular demands a major image rethink. How about "SXSW Cyberspace Terrorist Paranoia"? "SXSW Axis of Evil Global InfoWar"? Might we arrange open-house tours of Enron and Global Crossing, perhaps using chartered buses? Why, there's just so much to discuss!

SXSW Interactive has suffered surprisingly little from the collapse of dot-communism. The core demographic at SXSW is the woolly-eyed digital creative, a species of creature from way before the Boom. Those characters were never anywhere near the big IPOs. They were all fueled by sheer subcultural coolness.

Back in the Neolithic dawn of the Internet, you see, the academics who built it used to beat the living crap out of a businessman the very moment they saw him. One peep of commercial spam on their stainless not-for-profit network, and the net-gods would reach right into your router and just throttle you, like an egg-sucking dog. Businessmen would take one look at that impossible Internet code, and they'd pick up their gray flannels and flee headlong to CompuServe and Prodigy. You young folks these days, you probably don't even remember "CompuServe." They croaked from being way too compu-servile.

Graying cyberpunk that I am ... all carpal-tunnel and bifocals ... I can well remember some weirdo pals in the Information-Wants-to-Be-Free contingent, idly wondering what would happen if the business world ever "discovered the Internet." Obviously they would buy up every machine in sight and try to make a profit at it. That much was dead obvious, for that was the period's Reagan-Thatcherite modus operandi. Clearly all us artsy cybergoofballs would have to find some other place to chatter and swap our lies, like, say, faxes or CB radio.

But one scenario was way too far-fetched and idealistic, even for the likes of us. What if it turned out that the Net was just plain too much for business to handle? That it was downright toxic to free enterprise?

But look what happened. When was the last time that you saw commerce, global capitalism, competition, the profit motive, the real deal ... choking on advanced technology as if they'd swallowed a jalapeño? What a spectacle! It ranks with the beached gasping of Marxism-Leninism in 1989.

Unworkable business models, the squalid collapse of e-commerce plans and b-to-b markets. Hundreds of dead corporations, with e-biz magazines gone thinner than Kate Moss. And those overachievers from Enron, my God! Thinking so far outside the box that they're in the witness box.

I could well go on, but you don't want to hear this story from me. You want to hear this from Lawrence Lessig, noted author of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. Lawrence Lessig will be keynoting SXSW on the cogent subject of "The Creative Commons." Lawrence Lessig is a Stanford law professor and Lessig is one heavy cyber-dude, he is heavier than depleted uranium. He despises copyright abuse, and he also knows who, how, and why they stole our broadband. I love that Lessig guy. Just knowing the truth is out there, it cheers me all up.

Okay, so the Net has proved toxic to business and nobody's making any money there. That stopped the profiteering, except for the spammers of course ... hucksters who are methodically bringing net.commerce into such putrid disrepute that it may well never recover. Lack of money, though, is not stopping the innovation. It never did. The Internet now reaches half the population of the USA. It is starting big seismic rumblings in China, Iran, and India, societies that lack their own AOL Time Warner and therefore have some dead-serious uses for cheap global network communication. Worldwide, people use the Net for e-mail. E-mail never had a real business model, but it was one feature everybody always wanted. The Net is becoming the planet's water cooler. It's all about the schmoozing and the gossip.

If you think the business scene at this year's Austin 360 was morbid, and demoralized, and pitiful, and I was there, and boy was it ever -- well, you should have seen the Davos World Economic Forum up in New York City. Which I also witnessed, for reasons I don't much care to explain. Okay, I'm topic-drifting here, but don't flame me just yet. You see, everybody at Davos was scolding, not the computer-crazy Americans, but the Japanese. They expect the Japanese banks to crater just any minute now. And get this: The Japanese never swallowed any New Economy Kool-Aid. The Japanese bend metal, they make Sony Walkmans and cars. They're still royally screwed. Try explaining that. It's sure more than Fortune or The Economist are able to manage.

Houston is supposed to be a solid, non-nonsense, oil-bidness town. Houston doesn't have any SXSW. Poor Houston is the snakebitten home of Enron, while Austin's feckless cyberslackers are still grinning and hitting the Return key. Yeah, Dell fired some people here, so maybe local rents will drop and all the potters and tapestry weavers will return from Wimberley. Man, anything's possible these days.

Information Wants to Be Worthless
Photo By Kenny Braun

The good folks of SXSW Interactive have a whole lotta blogging in the schedule. You may have never heard of "weblogging," because it never yet made anyone rich, but blogging is a way cool deal, man. Metafilter, Memepool, Boingboing.net, I'm on those blogs all the time. Blogdex, Daypop, those sites rock. SXSW Interactive is totally awash in the cream of blogger royalty. They've got Meg of Megnut, and Derek of Powazek, and Jason of Kottke, and Jeffrey of Alistapart, and a very Mongol host of other bloggers. If this recital means nothing to you, you are probably old and near death now.

Unlike those stellar bloggers, I was way too lazy to build any software, but I myself have a blog these days. This is a sure symptom of a major social contagion. It's much like my teenage daughter's AOL Instant Message mania. Her Mom and I, we were kinda worried about her 90% digital social life, until we realized that we don't have to buy her a car or any gasoline.

Net types like to catfight about whether blogging is the Way Forward or utter self-indulgence. Since it is almost certainly both at once, blogging is quite the hot topic. So there will be some bloggery debate, with scowling, and finger-wagging, and pepper-gassing. Yes, blogging has its limitations. There isn't much in the way of original content, for instance. Weblogging consists mostly of logging one's websurfing activities, then making sardonic comments about whatever you see. An activity one's admirers find hilarious. Yet admirers rarely pay for this. Except in their admiration.

Fame, glamour, gold ... so funny how that works! Camgirls, for instance. The trials and tribulations of girls with Web cameras, those are issues one might well broach with a SXSW expert, like say, Amanda from Amandacam.

Sometimes, as a camgirl ... no, I am not a camgirl myself, but I maintain a chilly, detached, surgical interest in their doings. As a camgirl, you might post some lovely and somewhat indiscreet pictures of yourself on the Internet. Or a picture of your boyfriend. For instance, your sweet, geeky boyfriend that you stole from some other camgirl, who is somewhat less attractive than you, and therefore gets fewer expensive toys from her admirers, purchased and shipped from her handy Amazon wish list. Margaret Mead could get three or four hot anthropological monographs out of this behavior, easily.

At least you'll be better off than poor Chu Mei Feng in Taiwan, who is a female politician who got cammed against her will by a jealous woman. Chu Mei Feng had a highly unprivate romp with a married Internet entrepreneur. That footage got spread to every horny Chinese guy on the Net. Today, all around the Pacific Rim, poor Chu Mei Feng is bigger than Monica Lewinsky. Everybody's Googling for her downloads. Chu Mei Feng is not attending SXSW, so presumably that means the rest of us get to discuss her and her remarkable, uh, issues. Chu Mei Feng is one of those entirely noncommercial, communitarian Net phenomena, of such intense interest to activists, intellectuals, and academics. And to science fiction novelists. Man, 21st-century life is rich and full!

Got some gamers showing up. Harvey Smith from ION Storm, for instance. I'm glad to see gamers on the SXSW scene, as when it comes to commercial Net entertainment, online gamers have the golden touch. Massive multiplayer online games: They're ticking like clockwork. People are in those game environments whacking at virtual dragons with imaginary swords and man, do these game guys coin the cash. Players of Everquest even sell their Everquest gear on eBay. To judge by the auction traffic, Everquest players, who are not even human but virtual characters, have a higher per capita income than Russians.

Meanwhile, Slate and Salon and Feed and Plastic, and all these supposed professional communicators, man, do they ever suffer. I'd like to see one political organizer, even Begala or Carville, who could put together an online crowd that can match those clamoring masses of Ultima or Everquest. When will the mainstream catch on to this? It's so baffling.

Lotta Web designers. They're always there. They travel in clumps. Because they speak their own unique languages, these people. Specifically, they speak ActiveX, ASP, CGI, HTML, Flash, and Java. It's a wonderful thing to see a profession so young, yet already so arcane. Furniture designers had to work for hundreds of years before they ever used terms like "ischial tuberosity." Even magazine designers, the closest relatives of Web designers, well, they still kinda speak English, at least until you get them started on typography.

This would be a very good time to hang out with the Open Source people, before they get formally reclassified as a national security threat. Have you noticed that Microsoft is declaring that "security" is their brand-new, No. 1 reason to live? And how about that alphabet soup of new American cyber-security agencies? Like, for instance, the "Information Awareness Office" at DARPA, which is being run by Admiral John Poindexter, of Iran-Contra fame?

I'm not trying to wax all Noam Chomsky here, but those Open Source people ... they are, like, a multinational, leaderless, heavily networked outfit with little-known agents and sympathizers in dozens of countries. Countries like Finland. And Norway. It's definitely the Axis of something, I dunno what, but something Scandinavian and fishy. You wouldn't believe how many active Linux zealots there are in India. India is right next door to a place, which is right next door to a place, that had some terrorists.

Sulekha.org is a Web site for Indian expatriates that is run out of Austin. Sulekha is the most sophisticated ethnic community Web site I've ever seen. I just webclicked a movie ticket for the Austin showing of Haan Maine Bhi Pyaar Kiya, starring Karisma Kapoor. Somebody should pass the word to the SXSW Film Festival that Bollywood is slithering into town via the Internet.

If Napster and its P2P clones ever get loose, nobody in the music business will make any money ever again. And if 802.11b ever works, nobody will sell Internet access and AOL will go broke. And if Linux had a decent graphic user interface, Bill Gates would have no business model. Bill would have to spend all his time giving vaccinations to little kids. You tell me what we're supposed to do about this menace.

There are a few highly interactive groups that I don't see at SXSW Interactive. They would be cops, terrorists, and the military. It hasn't escaped the notice of authorities that Shoe-Bombing Boy was very into Yahoo and Hotmail. The hounds of infowar are poring over captured al Qaeda hard disks as you read this. The computer cops have a new top-level cybersecurity office. As for the military, they were Internet from day one. If you websurf for the Pentagon's "Joint Vision 2020" on "network-centric warfare," you'll see a digital cluetrain like you wouldn't believe. We'll be seeing a lot more out of these people on the Net, we're gonna get all cheek-by-jowl and cozy with 'em. And you know what? They're so noncommercial, too! end story


Bruce Sterling, one of the premier names in near future fiction, is a Hugo Award-winning writer, and the author of Heavy Weather, Holy Fire, and Zeitgeist.

Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow will discuss "The Death of Scarcity" in a SXSW Interactive keynote conversation at 2:15pm, Tuesday, March 12. See www.sxsw.com for full conference schedule and more information.

Keep up with all our SXSW coverage at austinchronicle.com/sxsw. For scheduling on the go, here's a SXSW Film Pocket Guide, which includes the handy Film Grid. Sign up for our South-by-specific newsletter at austinchronicle.com/newsletters/ for news, reviews, and previews delivered to your inbox every day of the Fest. And for the latest Tweets, follow @ChronSXSW.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Bruce Sterling, SXSW Interactive, Multimedia, Interactive, IPOs, Internet, CompuServe, Prodigy, cyberpunk, free enterprise, global capitalism, Enron, Lawrence Lessig, Code And Other Laws of Cyberspace, The Future of Ideas, Creative Commons, Net, net.commerce, AOL Time Warn

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