SXSWi 2010: Closing thoughts

A debate on the increasing philosophical bent of the conference

From South by Southwest Interactive 2010: David Salinas and Todd Watson discuss why there is less hard-core technology and more usage philosophy at this year's conference — is fear and the economy behind the change or is the determining factor the growing number of non-technical users weighing in on planning and design?


Scott Laningham (, Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.

18 March 2010

developerWorks: All right. developerWorks at South By Southwest ... the last day. This is our wrap-up podcast. And we just found David Salinas.

Turbo: Where have you been, David Salinas?

Salinas: Nyquil and Advil Cold and Sinus.

Listen to this podcast.

Is math killing marketing? Listen, read, or watch the presentation.

More on geolocation.

More about "You are not a Gadget" Jaron Lanier.

Disruptive technology occurs when an innovation affects society in unexpected ways.

You can follow Clay Shirky online.

You can follow Danah Boyd online.

Metcalfe's law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

developerWorks: And you're here now and we're very happy to have you. You look good.

Salinas: Well, thank you.

developerWorks: You feel OK?

Salinas: I feel much better.

developerWorks: Before we talk about anything — and what we want to do here is just kind of a wrap-up of the conference, summary thoughts about this conference, the things we enjoyed, maybe some things that we didn't enjoy so much — but since we haven't had your perspective, being the one real software developer in this team and our audience, primary audience being developerWorks, do you want to give some quick highlights of the day, of the last two days for yourself? And also, what we were talking about earlier — kind of your perspective on the arc of this conference and how it's changing in both good and bad ways.

Salinas: So right off the bat, I mean, I've attended this conference now four years, I believe, and it has changed a lot. And it grew and has grown another 40 percent, which is just amazing. It's actually getting very difficult to walk around here, which is great about the conference, and I think it's great about the passion that's around technology and how it's changing our world. With that said, it's had also an impact on the conference and its content.

So let me first talk about what I've been able to attend. From a software engineering perspective, a lot of meat has disappeared. And there's a lot more other topics that are being discussed from a business perspective, from a design perspective, and from a fundamental "what's our philosophy" perspective, which is great.

So some of the things that I've seen that I thought were interesting — there's been a lot of stuff, more and more stuff around human behavior, neuroscience, psychology — that I think are really valuable on how can we make the tools that we generate, the applications, the interfaces more valuable to users especially in a social context.

One big thing that's happened this year, you guys have problem already talked about it, is geolocation. And I actually think it's actually a little bit larger than that. You know it's not just where you physically are in a three-, four-dimensional plane.

developerWorks: But what you can do with that data, too.

Salinas: But also where you are in your age, in your life stage and so forth, like that. So I really like the idea of location being a broader term. But from a geolocation perspective, really there was a lot this year on that. And it really sounds like from a business perspective there's going to be a lot of growth.

A lot of discussion this year about marketing and business with social. How can we correctly analyze what's going on and be able to then show return on investments and be able to capitalize on the opportunities? And you know, there was this great panel that I attended "Is math killing marketing?" And it was about this general philosophical debate that's going on in marketing is should we be going by things by intuition, gut feel, or should we be analyzing everything, constant data mining to find out what we should be actually leveraging. So that was very interesting.

I attended a great ... and there's a lot of panels on this and I'm sure you guys can chime in here ... about how the digital revolution is impacting other industries and particularly music, video, and then one I attended that was awesome was journalism.

And which sort of I guess brings us back to this general conversation about what's changing here at the conference. And I really think there's been a shift away from hard-core tech conversations to more about business, design, and then philosophy or cerebral sort of discussions about what are the fundamentals of our industry as far as thought processes.

developerWorks: Don't you think — and I'd love to hear both your thoughts — but don't you think that some of that is driven by the times we live in where people are concerned and they're worried and even though we're living in a fairly protected zone, certainly in Austin, Texas — and maybe many of the folks that come to this kind of conference are experiencing maybe a more successful work environment or business environment than a lot of people are outside of this arena — don't you think that in some ways is impacting people's focus on talking more philosophically than just wanting to crunch code and talk about code when you're facing a world with the kind of troubles this one's facing?

Turbo: Well interestingly, I think you're right and I think there's a lot of merit to what David is talking about in terms of the lack of as much focus on the technology and the tools and the enablement and all of that.

On the other hand, Jaron Lanier, in his keynote yesterday, I think he kind of alluded to the fact. He called out to the crowd and said, "You all are probably mostly successful people. I don't know if you remember that." Meaning ...

developerWorks: Yes, he said, "Congratulations." [LAUGHTER]

Turbo: Yes, "Congratulations." These are the people that are making a great living in very tough, economic times. But I also think it's bigger than that. And it's funny you bring up what you just said David because we actually spoke, Scott and I, the other day and asked me, "Well, what's the key themes that you're hearing?" You nailed one of them, geolocation which I actually — I don't want to say it wasn't interesting to me, but I'm actually, you've already heard my perspective on Foursquare and all these other tools. I really don't want anybody being able to find out where I am at any given moment and then use that data to profit.

But I think the other theme that we've been talking about is disruption. And I don't think this is new, but the only constant is change. And I think that all of these other industries that David's alluding to or you alluded to, Scott, journalism and citizen journalism, what's going on in music, what's going on now in the film and filmed entertainment business, all of them are reckoning with the impact of the network effect.

And I the think that that combined with the recession and the hard economic times is driving people to be more philosophical. And when I got so excited about this event, even though ... and I'm not of the technical bent that David is so obviously I wouldn't have gotten as much if that was more my orientation ... but I got a lot more out of it this year in terms of these broader philosophical themes like the talk that we had, that Clay Shirky had.

developerWorks: Right.

Turbo: The talk that Danah Boyd had around privacy and publicity. And certainly our interview with Patrick Meier [Listen | Read] earlier today was just mind-boggling because now we're seeing the network effect being used not just for profit generating enterprise, but we're seeing it be used for real life-saving, humanitarian and other, yes, political issues that we weren't seeing even a few short years ago or we were seeing it in smatterings.

And to see that really enter the mainstream I think is profound because it demonstrates Metcalfe's Law about the network, you know, becomes exponentially more powerful every time a new node is added to it just continues to be ubiquitous and pervade all of these technologies from Ushahidi [Listen | Read] to Tour to you name it.

developerWorks: Right.

Salinas: I'm going to be the devil's advocate here a little bit. I personally disagree that, you know, without a doubt ... I mean first of all, obviously Todd, you already mentioned this. People that attend this conference compared to what's going on out in the economy, we're isolated in that sense in many ways, many factors, both education, employment ... I mean all sorts of things, being connected, being informed.

So yes, I do believe the economy obviously has and the macro-trends are going on obviously affects people's thought processes in the panels here. But I don't think it was really the driver.

Really what I think what you're seeing is is that this conference, my personal opinion, has moved from a core tech conversation to more of a design philosophy orientation not because the economic issues, but more because the envelope is growing of those that are getting out, seeing the opportunities and want to get involved and want to be able to leverage these technologies that have been sort of sitting there simmering for a while. And so that's a good thing.

developerWorks: So part of it is the maturation of the web?

Salinas: Right. And so I think that's a good thing, that the conversation is growing broader, that more people are part of it. But from a practical standpoint, I still stand by this and I'm not trying to butt heads here with you guys, but from a practical standpoint, this is the year of all the years that I've come here that I had less take-away from practical speaking, of things I can immediately take action upon than any other year that I've attended.

developerWorks: In terms of building applications?

Salinas: Not only building application but just, better design, better X. It's becoming a lot more, you know, these are general guidelines. How does someone take that — an entrepreneur, an independent contractor — how does someone take that information and then practically translate it to something that returns value to their clients and for their own opportunities?

developerWorks: Right.

Salinas: And I think, you know, I don't know what's going to happen. I think, personally, I think there's going to be a little bit of a shift back.

developerWorks: Maybe there's a backlash. Maybe you need to talk to Hugh. Maybe you need to get in touch with these people because you live in Austin and say, "I'll help you fix part of this problem." [LAUGHTER]

Salinas: Maybe not. Maybe this ... maybe the conference becomes, continues along that trend and those that want the more hard-core practical elements have their own conference or go somewhere else. It totally could happen. That's not a bad thing if that happens.

developerWorks: Or maybe interactive splits into two things. Maybe you have the philosophical design ...

Turbo: The schism in the digital church. [LAUGHTER]

Salinas: And you know what, this conference is running out of space and time as far as the amount it can pack. So I really do think tough choices have to be made. With that said, I still think there's a lot of value, a lot of value in attending because I was part of conversations I would actually not do my typical day a routine or my profession would not be part of otherwise, and I think those are good things. It's good to have those conversations especially early in the industry to sort of firm up what we really believe, what are our cornerstones of philosophy and thought processes.

Turbo: Well, let me just add this.

developerWorks: Yes. And then we should do kind of a favorites wrap-up.

Turbo: I think here we are in 2010, it's the middle of March, the Ides of March was literally yesterday. Right in the middle of South By Southwest, go read your history. I'm not sure what that says. But you know, the Federal Reserve just announced that interest rates remain near zero. Things are tough out there.

But when I look at the amount of energy, I look at the amount, the better conversations I've had both in sessions and in the hallways and in the bars and restaurants, I am telling you that this industry, this digital industry, is poised for and upswing that is beyond our imagination.

If we thought that the bubble of late '98, '99, 2000 was a big bubble, I think we're headed toward an even bigger one, but this time I think there's a lot more of actual opportunities opposed to inflationary, Monopoly money.

And I don't just mean money floating around, I mean opportunities for reinventing all of the industries we talked about, but also of enabling more people to participate in that ecosystem. And if the increased attendance is any barometer, I think that that's probably a good thing.

But yes, maybe we should think about making sure that the tools, the tips, the tricks that can help keep the trains running and make better trains, they need to bring more of that next year. I can certainly agree on that.

developerWorks: And you know, not to wax philosophical just briefly, the conversation we had with Patrick Meier from Ushahidi which is the crowdsourcing crisis mapping tool that has been used in Haiti and in Kenya and in Chile to help people find those in need of help or to have people that have been disconnected reconnect. That's just a small example to me of that maturation that you're talking about.

And the web moving beyond that early stage of a novel way to have another Walmart or to consume entertainment and into that era of the possibility of really solving some human problems.

Turbo: And that's why tying it back to [A] Smarter Planet is exactly on the direction you're going, which says that if we have a better understanding, we have more data, and we have better tools — to David's point — to help us analyze all of that, we can make the world a better place because it's not the technology that's really any longer the inhibitor, it's we the people, we as people as hopefully moral human beings.

And I think that that's kind of the transcendental leap that we've seen start to happen that's very ... at this event that's very different from years back.

developerWorks: And the ripple effect of those kinds of actions and the way it inspires others. And when those stories are told at an event like this, who knows what we're going to be able to hear about next year. And to me, that's the inspiring part.

Salinas: Well, but most of it, let's also be honest, most of it the conversation we're having here at this conference is with people that are believers. And the responsibility that we need and this podcast is to help that, is to get others outside the industry to understand because part of the reason why there's this limitation of acceptance of technology is because people only see the negative that's happening out in society with particular industries. I mean, it's hard to embrace technology when you've just lost your job because of it.

developerWorks: Right. Sure.

Salinas: So, there's a lot of good value, innate value that the tools and trade that we all are part of can help contribute to society to bring us to a better tomorrow. And there's a cultural change, a resistance to change, a fear, that we need to work through ... which is great to hear these other stories about how people are applying the craft to solve real-world problems that are making real impact for people's lives because those are the type of things that will help change people to understand "okay, there's some good stuff here, let's see how we can apply it to our life, our culture, our society to make things better." So that's all, that's really good.

But we do need to go be advocates for this entry, for the technology and how to make things better.

developerWorks: You know and as that's part of [A] Smarter Planet theme, telling that story and highlighting examples of that stuff happening and encouraging those kinds of motives, that's a critical thing. And that's what I love about that [A] Smarter Planet idea, is that it's moving beyond the flash of the tools and the hipness thing and all of that and it's getting down to a place right now where we need to be, which when you have so many people suffering, this shift has to happen. It has to not be about how can I get rich, it has to be about how can I help with that idea of it coming back.

I mean, that's an age-old thing: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But really that's at the core of what we're talking about is the real inspiration here. Or needs to be.

Salinas: I probably will be shot for saying this but I actually think the dot-com bust was a good thing for our industry because it made us go back to basics, to reevaluate things, glean out the inefficiencies and sort of come back to basics. And that's provided us opportunity, this launch pad for us. And part of that now is going and taking all this foundation we've built to be able to go and leverage and solve real-world problems. So that's a good thing — another great opportunity for us.

And I, once again, we need to go out there and be advocates for what we are able to do and how we can help solve real problems in real people's lives.

developerWorks: Right on. Todd, any closing thoughts before you scamper off to your next friends-of-Todd meeting?

Turbo: Well I think that closing out on the connection back to what IBM® is all about, yes it's not going to be the next major gold rush. I think Al Gore, former vice president of the U.S. Al Gore, said it best that the Pulse event when he talked about this being about efficiency [Listen | Read].

And I think that we as a company and with the tools and in the partners that we have, we can help drive that efficiency. And that's going to be good for everybody, especially as we try to conserve the precious resources we do have, whether it's dollars, petroleum, or otherwise.

And get smarter about understanding what's going on with the planet, whether that's measuring the effects of global warming to better understanding your local water supply.

So I think we could debate this nigh on to forever, but I think we are again reaching a point that will be demarcated in time as having been another milestone. And I think that the year 2000, 2001 was one of those and I think the years 2008 through 2010 will as well. I do believe there's a lot of light at the other end of this tunnel.

developerWorks: Guys, thank you. This has been Turbo Todd Watson.

Turbo: Logging off.

developerWorks: David Salinas joining at the last minute.

Salinas: Pushing the shut-off button.

developerWorks: And Scott Laningham for developerWorks and IBM in general at South By Southwest Interactive 2010 in Austin. Talk to you all soon.



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