AUSTIN, Texas — There was an anti-AI protest here at South by Southwest on Sunday. Perhaps you heard about it on NPR or saw it on the BBC or read about it in USA Today.
Groups of students gathered on street corners and hoisted signs expressing fear at the forthcoming rise of the machines, the singularity, Artificial Intelligence, whatever you want to call it. Their T-shirts bore quotes from Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. “AI say goodbye” and “you say robots we say no bots,” they chanted. Journalists of all stripes were eager to spin the controversy as a sign of anxiety in the heart of tech culture. Techno-fear sells stories.
Except the protest was almost certainly not what it seemed.
As io9.com first pointed out Monday, the protest had the distinct whiff of marketing astroturf. The “Stop the Robots” organization had no web presence before last week. The putative organizer of the protest, replacing last week’s putative organizer, could not be traced back to the university at which he claimed to be a student. The chants were brief and desultory.
Does this all amount to a viral marketing stunt for the upcoming spellcheck-mangling movie, Terminator: Genisys? Or for the upcoming Alex Garland import Ex Machina? I wouldn’t put it beyond marketers in either the UK or the U.S. to pay a bunch of kids to do this, and Ex Machina was certainly behind a simultaneous viral marketing stunt on Tinder.
But to even ask the question is to do the marketer’s bidding. The more interesting questions: What does this all say about the indie festival known and beloved as “Southby”? What has it become? What have these Interactive interlopers done to the former fiefdom of Film and the monarchy of Music?
The answer, in my few days of wandering downtown Austin, fast-walking from ballroom to theater to stage to carpeted hotel room, is that all of SXSW is now the best and, increasingly, the worst of the Internet writ large — or in more SXSW-appropriate speak, the Interwebz IRL.
It’s full of clickbait (here known as panel names), it’s dominated by big brands (one of the hottest parties: the fry-filled McDonalds bash), and as the pro- and anti-robot protesters showed, it’s one vast hipster-run theater of marketing stunts. Think Improv Everywhere, but with less imagination.
Of clickbait and FOMO
The panels — don’t get me started. Panels have evolved into the great evil temptation of SXSW Interactive. More than at any other conference I’ve attended, with the sole exception of TED, they seduce you with fascinating headlines. Only to trap you, maybe seven times out of ten, in a room with a poor PowerPoint, a less-than-inspiring speaker and rambling audience questions.
The problem with panels, though, is you can’t simply not go to any of them. That merely feeds the great monster that stalks SXSW as much as it does the Internet: FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out.
FOMO is changing our brains. I learned as much in a panel enticingly titled “FOMO, FB and Pot: Your Brain On the New Millennium,” at which the speaker turned out to be an executive at Pinterest rather than a neuroscientist. Still, I can believe it. I’ve been living through a very intense case. At this very minute, in fact, I’m finding it very hard to forego the choice between “New Earth: A Brand for the Year 2079″ and a dozen other intriguingly-named panels.
But FOMO stays with you. I can’t tell you the amount of times this festival I looked back and wished I had gone to “We Are What We Click: The Dark Side Of Sideboobs” on Saturday morning rather than “iDiet, iDid-it! Losing Weight With Wearables,” where a volunteer futzed with a slideshow attempting to resize the screen for ten minutes. Then a well-meaning Ph.D. who had recently lost 70 pounds talked haltingly about food-logging apps, not wearables.
By the time I found that out, it was also too late to switch to “Wearable Drones: High-Flying Fashion,” and I couldn’t reach a panel on one of my favorite TV shows, Community, because it was listed in the impenetrable guide under “Yahoo sneak peak.” Hashtag peak Southby.
With literally dozens of panels happening simultaneously, not to mention robot petting zoos and Google Fiber open houses, you have to make this kind of likely losing choice all the time. The festival’s Panel Picker tool, whereby anyone can submit a panel idea and then solicit online votes, has systematically driven down the quality of the average session — while simultaneously, in a Darwinian process of survival, improving the clickbaity-ness of their headlines.
You may laugh, but tell me you’re not sorely tempted by at least one of the following titles. Game of Thrones: Creating Immersive Entertainment; Infinity and Beyond: Pixar and 20 Years Since Toy Story; “CAT”astrophe: the Good, Bad and Ugly of Internet Cats; Anyone Can Prevent Cyberwar: Here’s How; Science Fiction IRL And Our Road Map To Utopia.
Now choose one and forgo the rest forever, because they all took place at roughly the same time Monday afternoon on different sides of downtown. It’s as if clicking on one headline in your Facebook feed prevented you on clicking on any other, and then the whole feed completely refreshed again.
First-world problem? Sure, but it bears examination. Here is all the ADD of modern connected life, crammed into a few Texan city blocks in which you bounce around like a pinball seeking enlightenment. Here are the serious-looking hipsters intent on changing the world, somehow, with some app yet unbuilt. They look more serious every year, more determined to filter out the distractions at the carnival of viral marketing.
I bet if someone sold blinkers they’d do a roaring trade, but smartphones do the job well enough.
And every year they’re more subtly surrounded and dominated by brands, in ever more effective ways. A friend confessed her unease at discovering a panel on medical technology contained panelists from a major soda company and a major beer company, but only with a half-hearted shrug: What are you going to do?
There was much Meerkatting at the McDonalds party, and I happily played along at a distance so I couldn’t be tempted by the trays of Big Macs. I wanted to ask the guys in squirrel costumes why they were to be found around town reading books, but there was no time, and I already knew the answer: Yet another startup with a business model that may or may not work.