Austin and El Ambulante

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

According to the famous quote by science fiction writer William Gibson, the future was in Austin this past week for SWSX Interactive. More than 15,000 of the digitally inclined brought their favorite assortment of screens and shoulder bags in order to sell their great ideas and make sense of what’s to come.

I stopped by myself (iPhone, iPad, and MacBook all in hand) thanks to the kind invitation of Amy Schmitz Weiss who organized a panel on social media in Mexico. There’s not much one can say about social media in Mexico (or anything else) in just 10 minutes, and so we must resort to anecdotes and soundbites. The ‘Tedification’ of intellect, one friend calls it. Still, here’s my presentation. I skipped through at least half of it.

All the veterans will tell you: you might catch an interesting panel here or there, but SXSW is to catch up with old friends and make new ones. I heeded their advice. I caught up with old blogger buddies – like César – that I hadn’t seen in far too long. Others – like Prentiss – who I had yet to ever meet. And still others – a thick wad of business cards stuffed into some corner somewhere – or people who I would like to be my friends if the nature of time were to take an unexpected turn. Then there were dozens of people – friends, colleagues, co-conspirators, what have you – who were allegedly there, but never seen. You get used to that, the veterans tell you.

Why everything is amazing but nobody is happy?, was one of the dozens of panels that I had wanted to see, but missed. It was also a question I asked myself repeatedly throughout the week. Actually, I should clarify. It’s not that the digitally inclined were unhappy; just anxious. An existential angst. If as teenagers they asked themselves what they should be doing with their lives, now they were asking themselves what they should be doing with every minute. The humid Austin air was thick with ‘first day of school’ anxiety.

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“For the last two years Twitter was the new Twitter, what’s the new Twitter this year?” asked one friend when I told her I’d be going to “spring break for the Internet.” According to TechCrunch: “Advertising Was This Year’s Twitter, iPad 2 Was This Year’s Foursquare.”

In fact, there were no next ideas. No “the new Twitter.” All the keynotes were the same keynotes I saw last year. And I’m pretty sure that all the keynotes I saw last year were the same ones I had seen the year before. Oliver Burkeman, desperate for a headline to justify his expense account to his editors at The Guardian, says his big takeaway is that cyberspace no longer exists. I’m pretty sure I saw a keynote about that a few years ago.

My great next idea is that I need to stop going to social media conferences. But yes, I admit, I came up with that one last year too.

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It was discomforting that everyone at SXSW looked either slightly familiar or slightly like me. Here I was, just another Internet mall rat, filing away these thoughts in order to later post them onto my blog. A few friends have told me that they consider me an early adopter. Is that a talent, a coincidence, or a condition in need of treatment? I feel like I’m supposed to do something with it. Something that I’m not.

There must be some grand theory out there to help me understand all of this. To help me understand myself. And so late in the afternoon on my last day of the conference I tried to attend the panel “Understanding Humans: New Psychology and the Social Web.”

Newer psychological theories like Activity Theory or Actor Network theory can help us understand our need for tools like Twitter and Facebook. This world of post-cognitive theories understand social relationship and move beyond the simple world of goal directed tasks with neat closure.

A world of post-cognitive theories? Surely that would help me help myself. The room was packed, overflowing into the hallway. I couldn’t hear a thing. Oh well – Wikipedia tells me everything I need to know: It’s a “psychological meta-theory, paradigm, or framework, with its roots in Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky’s cultural-historical psychology.”

Of course.

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In search of a smoothie to sooth my sore throat, I passed this guy – allegedly homeless – on Congress, sitting outside of Apple’s temporary downtown store to sell new iPads to my fellow early adopters:

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Why not ride the wave of crowdfunded creativity?

Once, about a decade ago, I wrote in my (paper) journal that all I needed was a good digital camera and a decent laptop and my life would be complete. I had just returned from a round-the-world trip with recent visits to Patagonia, Easter Island, Polynesia and Southern Africa. I had seen so much, wanted to see so much more, and just needed a few tools to help make sense of it all … to communicate these thoughts in a compelling way.

Maybe Social Media Bum feels the same way. With the right tools, everything else is just a matter of time.

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Here I was with all the right tools in my bag, feeling incredibly uninspired. I took refuge in a nearby movie theater and decided to watch a movie called El Ambulante. It was my path to redemption. The documentary follows artisan filmmaker Daniel Burmeister as he travels from small town to small town in southern Argentina, peddling his craft.

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The business model goes something like this: Burmeister arrives to some small town in a rundown car with little more than an old VHS video camera and a stack of letters of recommendation. He first heads to the mayor’s office and asks for a month of room and board in exchange for making a movie about the town. With life’s basic necessities secured, he walks around getting to know the town’s residents and asking them to act in his movie. The mayor will play the mayor, the priest will play the priest, and so on.

The mere process of making a feature film transforms the town, the way the residents interact with one another, how they view themselves. It was especially fun to watch the documentary in a theater full of filmmakers (in town for SXSW’s film festival). While they couldn’t help but giggle at Burmeister’s amateurism, they were clearly inspired by his passion and his philosophy of “artisan filmmaking.”

I left the movie theater feeling inspired myself. I had momentary daydreams of buying a run down VW Bus in Mexico City and driving it around southern Mexico to follow in Burmeister’s footsteps.

It was, in fact, the first moment I had felt inspired all week. All this talk about The Next Big Thing had me feeling numb. I was tired of the next great idea. Later that night I checked into the Rising Voices website – the first time I had done so in weeks. In Colombia some of the newest members of HiperBarrio made a tribute video to their community librarian. In Egypt this week a group of female bloggers have gathered to discuss the future of feminism after last month’s revolution. And in Kenya some very brave bloggers are challenging the taboos and discrimination against HIV-positive Kenyans.

On the flight back from Austin to Mexico City I realized just how little I care about The Next Big Thing. The next great app, the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next great band, the next great filmmaker. I’ll leave that to others – and there are plenty.

As lightning lit up the clouds beneath us, I read Heather Ford’s excellent essay, “The Missing Wikipedians.” There is still so much work to be done. So many great projects that may not be innovative; just merely important. That is where I will try to focus my time and energy.

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