A Report on SXSW Interactive 2012

24 Mar 2012

This is guest post for ProfHacker and is cross-posted on their site.

What is the next big trend in technology? The next "killer app"? Must have social media tool? Over 25,000 people came to Austin, Texas last week to find out. Although no one app or service swept the show this year, some of the buzzworthy tools, ideas, and trends at South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive were

SXSW Interactive is know for bringing together today's cutting-edge technologists and researchers, leading innovators, and promising start-ups in an energetic and engaging environment. Though it's not specifically an education conference (see SXSWedu), much of the content and discussions had strong ties to higher education. For example, trends in web development and social media will impact every campus in one way or another, many sessions discussed the future of libraries and publishing, and I got the impression that 3D printing will likely find a good home in engineering departments. Similarly, networking is as important (and more important for many) as attending sessions at SXSW. If you couldn't find a session on the specific topic you were interested in, you could easily find someone (probably an expert) willing to talk about it one-on-one.


Many panels discussed the growing field of big data, the term used to describe massive datasets that increase rapidly and encompass various types of data (e.g. social networks, government data, Sloan Digital Sky Survey). The methods used by advertisers to gather our online personal data have recently raised privacy concerns, but big data is being productively applied in many other areas. For example, the panel in "Maps of Time: Data As Narrative" discussed the role of big data in journalism. The use of social media in Arab Spring and the Occupy movement reinforced the idea that everyone is a potential source and that large amounts of content need both human and machine analysis. Algorithms are useful for identifying general trends but humans are needed to curate the most relevant data, establish causality, and create a narrative. As Nicola Hughes (@DataMinerUK) of Scraperwiki noted, 1,000 tweets can't prove you right but one tweet can prove you wrong. Drew Harry (@drewwww) of MIT Media Lab voiced concern over objectivity by asking "who is curating the curators?" (both the human and machine curators) while Hughes argued that all of us, as content creators, have a collective responsibility to represent truth in the new media ecology.

Discussions of digital preservation and web culture took on additional meaning in light of recent debates on SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act. In "Preserving the Creative Culture of the Web," Jason Scott (@textfiles) of the Internet Archive discussed some of the systemic problems facing preservation today. Scott said "I used to worry about floppy disks, now I worry about universities," highlighting the vulnerability of our cultural heritage in a world of budgetary constraints. Although audio of all conference sessions can be found on sxsw.com, Scott also captured the session by taping a personal recorder to one of the speakers - "because I don't trust anyone!" At the same session, Kari Kraus (@karikraus), of the College of Information Studies and the Department of English at the University of Maryland, discussed the challenges of preserving digital games and how seemingly outdated tools (e.g. Kyroflux) are actually an essential part of the digital preservationist's toolkit.

I was intrigued to see that digital humanities (DH), a group synonymous with an innovative use of technology, was not well-represented at the conference. The conference schedule had only one session that mentioned DH (which doesn't mean DH was absent, as we know the dangers of drawing conclusions from only reading the program). More broadly, I feel higher education could have a more active presence at SXSW Interactive. There were certainly faculty members presenting research, some discussions of open education, and I met a smattering of attendees from various university departments, but more often I received questions like "why are you here?" when introducing myself to someone from outside of higher education. This is not to say that the people I met were mean-spirited but rather they didn't see the connection between a technology conference and higher education. There was much at the conference that directly applies to and can benefit higher education, and greater participation in the conference will help us influence these conversations and change outdated perceptions of the academy.

The take-away message

I did not meet anyone with an answer to the question of the internet. Everyone is continuously adapting to a constantly changing networked technology environment. It's easy to get lost in the sea of information, endless jargon, new apps and gadgets, etc. Paradoxically, by embracing this chaotic milieu and bringing everyone to one location, SXSW succeeds in allowing you to find what is most relevant to you. By bringing together people from every remotely tech-related field (whatever your field might be, your people were probably there) and creating lively atmospheres for ideas to cross-pollinate (i.e. parties), SXSW provides a forum unlike any other for discovering how technology influences the present and will shape our future. The most poignant remark I heard during the conference came from Amber Case's (@caseorganic) fascinating keynote. Case said the best technology is invisible. Machines should work for us, not against, and should get out of our way and let us live our lives because, after all, we are real people living in real life.

Did you attend SXSW Interactive or watch any of the sessions online? What were the highlights for you?

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