"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Friday, March 13, 2009

Sustainable Awesomeness

(Picture: guy in a pink gorilla suit selling some silly thing or other at SXSW;
guy on cellphone at left probably has a more consequential job)

Why am I at SXSWi?

"SXSWi?" regular readers will surely ask. If I tell them it's locally pronounced "Sowfba enneractive" the confusion may well mount.

"South by Southwest" or "SXSW" (locally pronounced "Sowfba" if you have a sufficently mumbly Texas accent, else "Southbye") is an annual conference of "indie media" that has turned into one of the main events on the Austin calendar and definitely the biggest thing at the convention center. Next weekend is the culmination, when the musical portion of the event occurs. It's essentially a meeting of people calling themselves "creatives". And the "interactive" part is about web professionals, most of them, from the looks of it, about 25, and the seasoned veterans pushing 35 by now.

Why, you ask, would I spend $495 on such an event? The answer is twofold. One is that my usual annual dose of optimism, PyCon, is off the table for this year. (Dang. Last I heard they were using my idea for the T-shirt too!)

Creative professionals, like Python programmers, are an intensely optimistic breed. All my time with doomsters and Fortran programmers tends to make me sour. That, and, the end of the world and stuff. These people come up with lines like "care and feeding of your epic shit" and "sustainable awesomeness".

This kind of epic shit tends to cheer me up. The amount of creative and fundamentally decent energy in the world is vast. Our only hope is to channel it, but it's good to remember that it's there. Admittedly, in this crowd there is a lot of posing to slice through. Fortunately, it's pretty shallow posing.

The main reason I ponied up for the ticket (aside from it being a local show I could sneak off to without a plane ride, and remember:

) is that I am trying to think about how to become a freelance writer/web content provider/client side web programmer. The logic is inescapable: newspapers are folding, the need for information is expanding, there has to be some way to monetize the demand.

I'm very tired of the science world where the way you prosper is by an endlessly tedious (and increasingly maladaptive) process of going for a sort of collective approval. Yes it's true, it is still a mostly functioning meritocracy, but my merits don't map onto it all that well.

I feel that I have something to offer not just as a blogger, but as someone who helps find and implement the business model for the new world, where there is less sharp of a distinction between producer and consumer of intellectual property. We should all be spending more and earning more online. Hey, we could even have "growth" if we did that.

Also, I just need to go to a webby meeting every couple of years lest I lose my edge as someone who understands what is actually going on. But I'm serious. I realize both how big an accomplishment my audience here is and how tiny it is compared to what I would need to make a living freelancing. (Consider: if I could get 100 people to pay a dollar a week to listen to me rant, what a great achievement, and what a feeble income stream!)

So once I had managed to wend my way through the hour-long registration process (almost as miserable an experience as an airport) and started flipping through the over-designed and almost illegible program, I was pleased to see that a session on the future of journalism had just started. I rushed to the session, only to find that the huge (300 people?) room was full and latecomers turned away. Yet this was the event I had come to see.

The speaker of the event was a fellow named Steven B Johnson and I noted he was signing books immediately after, so I decided to say hello and complain about my fate. He is the author of "The Invention of Air", a book about the discoverer of oxygen, a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, a tolerant stoic and a rationalist utterly opposed to religious fundamentalism who had a great influence on America's founders. His talk apparently included "MacWorld mag circa '87, old-growth forests, 92 election, Obama's race speech, hyperlocal, and more!" He founded a website called "outside.in" which scrapes the blogs for references to places and aggregates them by locale. All of these imaginative and intelligent achievements are things I can imagine doing. The thing he has done that I can't conceive of is getting 173,000 followers on Twitter. And yet, that is the scale needed to make writing worth doing as a business rather than as a hobby.

Anyway, Johnson (can I call him Steven on the basis of 37 seconds' conversation? hell, yes, that's the way to do it) , Steven I should say, told me he was releasing the talk on the web and I should follow his stream to find out exactly where. Sort of ironic that I paid admission to get that information. And here I am passing it onto you for free.

Update: Here is Steven Johnson's talk.


Anonymous said...

The trick is to become a celebrity.

I believe the science world is a bit more meritocratic - and you're moving to a much worse environment, from an intelligent logical mathematical person's viewpoint.

I see an ever decreasing amount of substance in produced material.

Those are the most successful who are the best at convincing people - and people are NOT convinced by rational arguments.

Rich Puchalsky said...

You're near Austin -- you're a computer / climate person -- and a search of your blog returns no hits for "Bruce Sterling"? Hmm.

Sterling has been sort of doing what you want to do, from the other direction (you're starting with science and going more popular, he started with SF and is going more sciency). Were you on the Viridian list, when it was active? As I mention here, I think that it fundamentally went a bit wrongheaded in its desire to have the problem be amenable to geeky technical-decentralized solutions rather than plain old centralized politics, but it was a good effort.

You might want to look up his stuff, if you aren't already like a friend of his or an ex-Viridian regular or something. Admittedly, "write many very popular SF books" is not really a path into what you want to do that you can follow, but it might tell you something about how to do part of it.

Michael Tobis said...

GL - not entirely. I am trying to be self-supporting, not rockstar famous. Johnson manages it.

Rich; I'm relatively new in town.

A longtime fan of Sterling's, I didn't know he was local until recently. Would love to meet him or similarly minded Austinites.

Rich Puchalsky said...

I don't know if he is really local to you any more. He's been traveling around the world,taking one vaguely defined university position as a futurist after another, it seems like. Last I heard he was in Turin, Italy.

But there was certainly a scene that he was part of in Austin that you could probably find somehow.