Forget Finding Your Friends. SXSW Shifts to Outer Space

Talk shifts from altering lifestyles to changing the world

This year, like the one before it, nobody "won" South By Southwest Interactive. This is not news, nor is it a surprise for a festival that's been in the middle of an identity crisis for years; depending on who you ask the conference jumped the shark/got too big/sold out anywhere between 2003 and 2013. However the 2013 edition of the Austin's annual tech bacchanal and marketing bonanza did appear to distinguish itself from years past, moving quietly away from its relentless obsession with the next big social app to a broader focus on futuristic, change-the-world technology.

A good bit of tech coverage surrounding this year's festival focused on the rise of hardware over the usually dominant app culture, which was no doubt true given the buzz companies like Leap Motion and MakerBot generated throughout the five day conference. But South-By wasn't just about cool tech toys, it was about world-changing, potentially mind-blowing tech.

"This has been a very aspirational conference in terms of the technology we've seen," Mashable founder Pete Cashmore told Adweek in Austin. "Theres' a high level of dreaming about the future here and talking in ways that are more concrete than we're used to. What's really exciting is the ideas seem bigger and people appear to be more optimistic about tech in a way I haven't seen before," he said.

The focus was present at the outset of the festival, which kicked off with MakerBot's Bre Pettis, who revealed the Digitizer, a 3D scanning tool that was quickly extolled by a chorus of tech prognosticators as a once-in-a-generation, industry changing invention. Pettis himself even made reference to "the next industrial revolution” during his keynote, no doubt looking to plant his flag as a leader of that movement.

The theme continued into the second day's keynote as well with entrepreneur/car maker/space exploration enthusiast Elon Musk, who noted with a straight face that he would "like to die on Mars, just not on impact." Like Pettis, Musk revealed a never before seen innovation, showing test video of Space X's Grasshopper rocket, the first stage of Musk's initiative to create reusable rocket technology, which looks to defray somewhere near 97 percent of the cost of propelling a rocket into space.

The reveal was met with wild applause by the crowd and was followed by a series of grandiose proposals from Musk, including a high speed transit hyperloop. "It would be something that would be twice as fast as a plane, at least, in terms of total transit time," Musk casually noted. "It would be immune to weather, incapable of crashing pretty much unless it was a terrorist attack, and the ticket price would be half of a plane." Musk appeared set on much of the idea, save for whether the system would be best served above or below ground.

Space was indeed everywhere, evidenced by NASA's formidable presence in Austin this year. Over the five day Interactive portion, NASA was directly involved or at least mentioned in the names of 14 different panel and expo events, and had a presence at parties throughout the week. Riding the wave of its successes with the Mars Curiosity rover, the Jet Propulsion Labs social media team stepped up its presence as well. Making its first SXSW appearance in 2009, NASA's JPL social team has seen a noticeable boost in interest. "I feel people are now more aware of what's going on outside the bubble,"JPL/MarsCuriosity social media specialist Courtney O'Connor told Adweek. "The first year there was much more, 'what are you guys doing here?' Now we find people are just more receptive and aware."

NASA's social team drummed up enough support and accolades to win this year's SXSW Interactive Award for best social media campaign for the Curiosity rover's work across Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Ustream. "The conventional wisdom is that the folks at SXSW were the generation that mostly knew failures like Challenger and Columbia, but we've found out that there's a group that really loves NASA and [being here] in Austin it's the perfect marriage between science and technology."

Even on the last day of the Interactive conference, Google X's captain of moonshots (yes, that's a real title) Astro Teller filled a large ballroom for a keynote titled, "Building a Moonshot Factory." Teller's 30 minute speech was more motivational than informative as he peppered the crowd with big picture questions like "why do we have to wait for forces like war in order to think radically outside the box against the worlds most pressing problems?" Teller urged the audience time and again to adopt "uncomfortable ambitions that defy logic and seemingly science" and focus on big projects "that would make the world a radically better place" while freely accepting failure."

It's this type of grandiose talk that causes eyes to roll and critics to pounce on the self-hyping SXSW tech collective and it's a problem the festival will continue to grapple with as it focuses less on "of the moment" apps and software. Just yesterday Gawker's Adrian Chen published an interview with noted Silicon Valley critic Evgeny Morozov who slammed the SXSW hivemind for its solutionist mentality. "So what I don't like about SXSWi crowd—and TED crowd is even worse here—is the unwillingness to deeply engage with such political/ethical dimensions of their favorite toys. They are "solutionists" in a sense that, once armed with their favorite tool, they spend no time whatsoever thinking about just how deep and complex their chosen problem is," he told Gawker.

Likewise, MIT Technology Review editor and publisher Jason Pontin was a vocal critic on Twitter during Musk's keynote, citing a lack of pragmatic thinking behind Musk's aspirations to walk on Mars.

Yet despite its detractors, it is clear that the peculiar idea of "moonshot thinking" was front and center at South By Southwest this year. Perhaps as a result of successful real-world technological feats like Curiosity's Mars landing or perhaps as a reaction to app and software burnout. Near the end of Teller's talk, as the ballroom began to empty out, the Google employee-turned motivational speaker addressed Musk's ambitious plans to walk on Mars and aptly managed to sum up the theme that permeated the conference this year. "Whether [he] succeeds or not cannot be the issue," Teller stressed to the dwindling crowd. "We have to learn to celebrate process and direction."

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