SXSW: Free Tacos of the Apocalypse

I am a metaphor for SXSW Interactive. I’m sitting in one of the first presentations of the festival, a session that aims to show how programming code can be expressed like classical music. While I’m listening, I’m writing this article on a mobile device. And I’m digesting a hurriedly eaten lunch. SXSWi, similarly, tries to advance complicated creative pursuits while serving a massive horde of commercial interests. And, like me, it is filled with free food and beer.

SXSWi is relevant for two reasons. One, it’s now a travel destination — a yearly indulgence of epic consumption that could be enjoyed by even the most computer illiterate fun-seeker who has $600 to $1,250 (the cost of single and platinum badges if ordered late). Second, tens of thousands of interactive media builders and leaders, when they are not boozing it up, are spending every moment redefining how our species communicates on every level of digital interaction. (Twitter was launched here four years ago; Foursquare followed two years after that). It’s the biggest event of its kind, now even dwarfing the venerable SXSW Music festival. Everything that we do that depends on electronic communications is being ripped apart and re-engineered by this industry, to the extent that it will make your entire daily routine seem quaint in the near future. Ignore what happens here at your peril.

SXSWi is already notorious for all kinds of ridiculous promotions and amenities. It’s like a giant spa with wifi. At the start of the festival, my mental workspace is buried under a massive pile of email invites for entertainment and hospitality events. These events are completely superfluous to the creative mission of the festival; it’s all marketing- and publicity-driven, mostly by cash-rich startups and massive corporations. Yet these sponsored events are a critical source of revenue for the festival. These companies are also picking up most of the attendees’ meal and drink costs for the week, too, as completely obvious quid pro quo attempts to have us embrace their brands.

Sponsors also provide access to high-demand entertainment opportunities. Here’s an excellent example of an extreme “white people problem” I have coming up on Monday night: I have to choose between TV on the Radio hosted by Zynga, or Big Boi and Pepsi MAX. Attendance is free for both. No feverish 10am Ticketmaster website clicking or costly ticket prices required. (Does anyone have an interesting cash offer for the concert I’m NOT going to? Scalping is not beneath me.)

But wait, there’s more! At the convention hall, you can have a personal phone recharging locker! Enjoy separate press AND blogger lounges with free food, free beer, and free massages! Eat free tacos courtesy of Lipton Brisk Iced Tea … or at any bar hosting a promotional event … or at the offices of various startup companies in the area who are hosting catered parties. Take a free ride in a Chevy to wherever you want in Austin! Enter contests to win free trips, free cars, free computers, free iPads, etc. AOL is giving away headphones I’d normally spend $10 to buy. I took two!

I could accept as many of these consumption opportunities as physical time and space allows, and not spend a second doing anything involving interactive media products. All of the sponsors would LOVE that. One needs epic levels of restraint to proceed through basic priorities here.

The troubling question is, at what point does the promotion and showcasing of irrelevant products become the basic priority of the presenters and organizers? Have we passed that point already? Is everyone here full of shit? Is this all proof of the biggest technology investment bubble yet? Does this mean our entire society has lost restraint and is headed for brand-infatuated doom?

Maybe there is hope for us yet. While I wrap up at the session that I’m attending — which is very much on-point about management and organization — there is simultaneously a session titled, “How Not to Be a Douchebag at SXSW”. By my tally, that’s 2 points for creative minds, 0 for douchebags. I aim to have my time here spent trying to increase that lead. With the help of some free beer, of course.

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