SXSW Interactive Day One: I know where your gnome lives

South by Southwest Interactive (March 8-12 in Austin, Texas) is “five days of compelling presentations from the brightest minds in emerging technology,” along with a few talks by blatant self-promoters and off-topic windbags (so we can tune out and catch up on twitter and email).

Plus parties.

When I return from SXSW my friends know not to call for a couple of days because I’m completely incoherent. This is the most stimulating week of the year for me. I’m a writer and designer which means when I’m doing my job well, I’m sitting in front of a computer screen twiddling my fingers. I don’t get to meet new people every day, and certainly not people that are creating things that will change our world. This conference is a science fiction writer’s dream come true. (I’ve already gotten one short story out of it!)

Day one

Bre Pettis, CEO of MakerBot, revealed a new product in his opening talk–an affordable (I presume) 3D scanner, a companion piece to their 3D printer.


This is the first step in ordinary people being able to download plans and print things they need–at home. Well, everything plastic! And, smallish. Need a gnome, fast? Done! Or, a great example, a parent designed and printed a piece of train track for those big, wooden clip-together train tracks that had lego “holes” on the bottom to integrate with lego! Brilliant.

Next, “I Know Where You’re Going: Location as Biometric,” a talk given by Jennifer Lynch, a privacy attorney at EFF, and Jeff Jonas, an IBM Fellow and Chief Scientist, “about the legal and technical aspects of location information as biometric, what this means for privacy and civil liberties, and what you can do about it.”


This was a YIKES moment. In my book Six, the main character grows up on a planet with 27/7 surveillance and no privacy, but I thought I was I was writing fiction. 100 years in the future, another plant…cough. Nope! It’s now! We all carry devices, also known as cell phones, that constantly report our whereabouts. We are creatures of habit, and our path through a normal day and week creates a fingerprint as unique as, well, don’t make me say it.

Jennifer Lynch outlined some of the issues location data raises:

  • It presents an intimate portrait of our lives; who we associate with and where we go
  • Surveillance is cheap and easy
  • No need to plant a tracking device
  • Aggregation, visualization tools, and data mining destroy “practical obscurity.”
  • It is unclear how the law protects this data.

This won’t be my last session on the law and privacy and technology. Spoiler alert: technology: 1, privacy: 0.

mollyThe final panel of the day: “The New Nature vs. Nurture: Big Data & Identity,” given by my old friend Molly Steenson and new friend Jen Lowe. “The new nature and nurture create opportunity and peril. The increasing availability of data changes how we are able to know and define ourselves—at the risk of being defined by algorithms that we can’t control.”

I promised to arrive early and I promised to take photos. Unfortunately, once the slide show started, the staff turned out all the lights and all my photos came out like this. “Pastel style.”

Night fell and parties began. Odd parties. One of my main complaints with interactive parties is that there is free booze and anyone can attend (thank the sponsors). After standing in a long line and finally being admitted to an official party, I had to fight my way through crowds of drunk college students holding several beers in each hand. Really. They were going to the bar, getting as many beers as they could and getting back in line again. AWESOME. I remember when…I don’t have the right to say that, as I’ve only been going to SXSW for 4 years, but a few years ago, in this same venue, I met interesting people and we carried on conversations. That did not happen this night.