What I learned at SXSW 2012

Ali Binazir 2012-03-21

I recently got back from the South By Southwest Conference and had a marvelous time. One unusual thing that happened this time around was that several people asked me, “Why are you here?”  It was a bit like asking why do you drink water, or what’s the big deal about this whole breathing thing anyway.

And yet, a trivial question it is not.  In fact, I very nearly didn’t go this year, so it’s important for me to remind myself why I do take 6 days off from work, buy a non-cheap pass, pay for non-cheap airfare and scrounge for accommodations in an overstuffed Austin during the second week of March every year to go to SXSW Interactive (NB: to add the Film and Music portions would frankly be too much). Here are my five reasons:

1) Encountering new ideas.  SXSW consistently pulls to its stages some of greatest minds in science, business, technology, entrepreneurship, journalism and all-around awesomeness.  Because there are so many stages, these speakers have incentive to share their best work with us lest we leave for another of the 35-40 simultaneous talks.  This year alone, I was lucky to catch talks by neuroscientist David Eagleman, inventor Dean Kamen, game designer Jane McGonigal, supergenius Stephen Wolfram, and X Prize founder Peter Diamandis (about all of whom I will share below).

The ideas these luminaries share are not only valuable per se, but also serve to collide together in the bubble chamber of your head to spawn new ideas of your own. That’s the magic that keeps on going weeks after you’ve returned home.

2) Encountering new people.  One of the great things about SXSW is that all those great speakers are just milling around with the rest of us — without their Secret Service detail. Stephen Wolfram was getting a sandwich with his two kids. Dean Kamen was standing on the curb waiting for a cab when I shook his hand (bonus!). Bob Metcalfe (inventor of Ethernet and founder of 3Com) was just moseying about at his friend Peter Diamandis’s talk.  One of the founders of Anonymous (who shall remain anonymous) was sipping margaritas at the Silicon Valley Bank mixer (and they were excellent margaritas – thank you, SVB). And about thirty thousand others are hanging out with you at the drinks tent, the exhibit floor, the blogger’s lounge, the Mashable party, the FedEx free food truck, and the karaoke bus.

The friendly, fun and cooperative atmosphere of SXSW lends itself to turning these hallway encounters into lasting friendships and business connections. Which brings us to…

3) SXSW is a nexus.  In addition to meeting new folks, SXSW is a great place to meet up with old friends from far-flung corners of the world, as well as those who live down the street whose schedules never seem to mesh with yours.  That VC guy in Palo Alto you never connected with? He’s there. The blogger from Portland you wanted to collaborate with? She’s there, too. And if they’re at a party trying to score free drinks like you, it means that slot in their calendar is open – go thee forth and connect.

4) Capturing the zeitgeist. If Eric Schmidt is correct in saying that mankind is creating 5 exabytes of information every two days, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you can’t get through all five of those exabytes in two days. Or even two thousand years.

So there needs to be some sifting, and conferences like SXSW do an excellent job of that. World-class speakers bring you the latest developments in their fields – design, journalism, computing, yak husbandry. You get to sit there and absorb so, for a glint of a moment, you can be on top of world developments before falling hopelessly behind.

5) Inspiration. Besides conveying metric craptons of interesting data, the speakers also move us with their words and feats so we reach for better versions of ourselves.  When you hear Dean Kamen talk about how he spent 8 years creating the Slingshot water purifier to solve the world’s water problems, you have no choice but to walk around with jaw agape, rejoicing in humanity’s potential to think big.  Psychologists call this emotion elevation, and it’s totally contagious. SXSW is a good place to catch it.

So. What did I actually learn there? Here’s a sampling:

Peter Diamandis on his new book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think

  • Prize competitions like the X Prize are highly efficient, leveraged ways of sparking breakthrough innovation and launching entirely new industries, like private space travel.
  • Some other X Prizes under way: lunar lander, handheld medical diagnostics, carbon capture, education.

Dr A.K. Pradeep on neuroeconomics and neuromarketing:

  • The prefrontal cortex of a teenager lags in development, so they understand the language of emotion, not logic.
  • People over 60 are capable of focusing, but they can get easily distracted by outside stimulus. If a message is negative, they tend to disregard it.
  • 7 dimensions of a brand: form, function, feeling, values, benefits, metaphors, extensions

David Eagleman: The Secret Lives of the Brain

David’s a rising star in the Baylor Dept of Neuroscience. Get his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, because it is awesomeness and because I had already read that book and didn’t take any notes. Yeah, what a tease, I know. Well, you can always check out this video instead.

Stephen Wolfram: Computation and its Impact on the Future

Stephen Wolfram is the creator of Mathematica and the author of A New Kind of Science, a magnum opus on cellular automata. He got his PhD in theoretical physics at 20 and won a MacArthur Fellowship at 21, so he’s pretty much a supergenius.

  • Computation is happening everywhere in the universe, all the time. As far as computation is concerned, the complex interactions happening inside a hurricane are mathematically equivalent to what a computer can do.
  • Wolfram|Alpha Pro is one unimaginably versatile, powerful piece of software. Not only can you query this ‘knowledge engine’ with a math problem, ‘population of Austin’ or ‘passengers on the Titanic’ and get a complete report with tables and graphs, but you can also upload entire files – a spreadsheet or your Facebook profile, say – and it will crunch numbers and spit out all kinds on interesting meta-data on your data. Completely mind-blowing.
  • Wolfram showed what Wolfram|Alpha Pro could do in terms of ‘quantifying the self’ when he plugged in some files of his logged daily activities, such as all the emails he had sent since 1990, or all the steps he had taken in the past year.
  • He also demonstrated the potential of the software to respond to medical queries, such as “LDL 180 male 50 years old”, which would spit out a report on where that falls in the range of normal. By Bayesian inversion, it can also give differential diagnoses if you add to the query “+ symptom xyz”. This could be powerful stuff.

Jane McGonigal: How to be SuperBetter

Jane had dazzled me with her book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World, so I had to check out her talk on the new game she had developed, SuperBetter.

  • She was inspired to create SuperBetter after a mild concussion left her mostly incapacitated and depressed. It worked so well that she decided to turn it into an app for the world to play. The game aims to help people achieve their health goals by increasing in them the quality of resiliency, which has three components: courage, agency and time.
  • The game itself has a fun and sparkly interface and has you do 4 tasks that in turn increase your physical, mental, emotional
  • There a bunch of apps, websites and games out there that already allow folks to increase their well-being, plan fun activities with friends, or set shared goals: Everest, Lift, Mightybell, dailyfeats, Schemer (brand-spanking new site by Google), Citizen Logistics

Dean Kamen: Invention and Inspiration: Building a Better World

I already told you that I was thoroughly blown away by Dean’s presentation. He worked for 8 years developing the Slingshot, which basically takes wastewater and turns it into injection-grade purified water. In order to make this work, Dean basically bent the laws of thermodynamics to his will and figured out a way to recover 94% of the energy used in water distillation. Still, the purifier was intended for remote, underserved areas that just didn’t have electricity. So he also invented a power supply (based on a Stirling engine) that can run on twigs or cow dung or Reese’s Pieces. Pretty sure Prometheus got chained to a rock (and worse) for doing stuff like this.

He also talked about FIRST (For Inspiraton and Recognition of Science and Technology), his insanely cool worldwide athletics-style engineering competition for kids ages 9-18, which is basically designed to make it cool to be smart. It’s been around since 1989, and this year 250,000 students from 50 countries will participate. I had no idea.

Emily Pilloton: Design. Build. Transform.

I attended this talk on a recommendation from Mashable, and I’m glad I did. Emily teaches high school in Bertie County, North Carolina, which is slightly east of the middle of nowhere. Through her nonprofit Project H (and in spite of serious obstructionism by school administrators), she taught her students how to design, prototype and build chicken coops — and a whole farmer’s market (!). The kids pulled it off.

  • Four things kids need to learn about: citizenship, creativity, capital, critical thinking.
  • She introduced us to the design idiom of the ‘vernacular sublime’ – simplicity that is beautiful, familiar and functional.

Ray Kurzweil: Expanding Our Intelligence Without Limit

Ray’s vision of the accelerating acceleration of technological progress is so brain-frying and mind-expanding that I didn’t even get a chance to write much down. A staggering number of predictions he made in his earlier books have come true. As a cofounder of Singularity University, he’s well-poised to predict the future since he’ll be overseeing its creation. The fields to look out for: genomics, nanotechnology and robotics/AI. Most of what he covered is in The Singularity is Near and Abundance. The graphs charting humanity’s technological progress are astonishing.

Biz Stone: Content as a Means for Social Change

Biz is one of the cofounders of Twitter. Instead of reporting on the latest wowie zowie technology, he chose to share five stories from different timepoints in his career, each illustrating a principle for life mastery. His demeanor while delivering the talk was so peaceful and generous as to have been a lesson unto itself.

  • Opportunity can be manufactured. In high school, Biz wanted to be one of the cool athletes but wasn’t all that good at baseball, basketball or football. So he got permission from administrators to start a lacrosse team from scratch, and became the star lacrosse player. Build your own universe, then rule it, dammit.
  • Creativity is a renewable resource. When he was a lowly mailboy at the publisher Little, Brown, Biz took it upon himself to steal some time on a workstation to design a book jacket for a new project, then casually place it amongst the pile of proofs. And if they didn’t like it, no big deal – there’s more where that came from. Turns out the project manager did like it, and biz got an insta-promotion to the design staff.
  • To succeed spectacularly, you must be willing to fail spectacularly. There will be no hedging! Biz invoked the storyline from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire to illustrate his point.
  • There is compound interest in altruism. You don’t have to wait to make it big before engaging in serious philanthropy. In fact, 40 cents a day buys antiretroviral drugs that can turn an AIDS patient’s health around so dramatically that it’s called the Lazarus Effect. You can start doing that right now. And the future of marketing is philanthrophy, so weave it into your business from the outset. Practice doing well by doing good.
  • Ask lots of questions from mentors and experienced folks. And go forth and change the world by building a business and having fun while doing it.

So there’s my attempt at preserving some of the learnings and inspiration from a remarkable gathering. If you were there, too, and have cool stuff to add, please do so in the comments – consider this our own nexus for the useful information we gleaned.