For one big week in March every year, Austin, Texas is overrun by culture and tech. Yes, I’m talking about the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals. (It’s often abbreviated SXSW, but don’t try to pronounce that. People just call it “South By” for short.)
South By is four festivals held more or less simultaneously: Music, Movies, Comedy, and Interactive, better known as Tech. You can walk up and buy a ticket to one of them for $1,325, or all of them for $1,650. By the time you’ve paid for travel, hotel, and meals, it’s not cheap to go to this conference—so as a public service, I decided to go for you.
Now, SXSW has some elements in common with other festivals. There’s an exhibit floor, and there are talks. This year, the speakers included Joe Biden, Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds, Garth Brooks, Buzz Aldrin, Melissa McCarthy, James Franco and Seth Rogan, Charlize Theron, and plenty more. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to get in to those presentations.
I saw, for example, a great interview with “Muppets” superstar Frank Oz; a brilliant panel called “Psychopaths in Silicon Valley”; and a panel that was misnamed “Hollywood Goes VR.” (Its panelists included virtual-reality game makers—no filmmakers, and no evidence that any Hollywood movies are, in fact, going VR.)
As for the tech conference this year, you can probably guess what was hot. Robots and AI. Virtual-reality headsets. Self-driving cars. The same stuff, really, you could have seen at CES a couple of months ago.
But what makes the conference so different is that the trade-show floors at SXSW are the streets of Austin itself. The parts you remember are the chance encounters on the street, the connections you make at the little hosted parties, the weird demos that just seem to pop up randomly.
And really good barbecue.
You could spend a week just at the food-truck lot, called Southbites. Phenomenal.
Overall, the roots of SXSW are like Austin itself: younger, weirder, and more bearded than most places.
But that’s changing. Austin, whose unofficial motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” is becoming more generic and corporate. Not all Austinites love having SXSW in their city, even though it poured more than $325 million into the local economy last year. The festival badly chokes traffic and jacks up hotel and parking prices, and the influx of startup “douches” drives the native, hippie-influenced Austinites crazy.
(When I landed in Austin, the Uber and Lyft apps told me that those services are no longer available in Austin. After waiting miserably in the cold rain for 30 minutes for a cab line, I tweeted, “Hey, cities, here’s a concept: Before you ban Uber and Lyft, how about making sure there are enough cabs or other ways of getting around?”
Big mistake. I quickly was informed that Austin didn’t ban Uber and Lyft; those companies preferred to leave rather than comply with a city requirement that drivers must be fingerprinted, along with other requirements.
In three followup tweets, I immediately apologized and clarified, but that wasn’t good enough for the still-raw Austinites:
“Gotta love how tourist scumbags like @Pogue barge into ATX and start b***hing about the fact that we passed a labor standards referendum,” said one. “Maybe don’t tweet some salty bullsh** without knowing what you’re talking about, jerkoff,” said another. And: “How bout you leave our city and never come back, you entitled bag of d****s.”
Wow. Touchy much, Austin?)
Anyway—there you go. A micro-visit to SXSW, yours free.
As for the $8,000 I just saved you? You’re welcome!
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David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s email@example.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email.