SWSX Reflections Part 2 – Jason Bennett, GC Director of Engineering20 Mar. 2012
I lived in Austin for 6 years in my previous life, and have enjoyed (and forgotten portions of) the Music and Film segments, but had never experienced the Interactive portion. When I think about my past experiences with “Tech conferences” I picture lots of presentations, some booths, and a couple of “networking events.” I had a feeling that SXSW would be different……and I was right.
The scene. SXSW is completely woven into the fabric of Austin; the festival and the city become one and the same. During SXSW Interactive, Austin is transformed from the live music capital of the world into a playground for anyone with a curious mind and the desire to connect and interact with the global tech community. SXSW is everywhere, from the street performer reading off twitter posts like the town crier to the converted parking lots that, for 5 days, represent the marketing focus of the global tech community. Networking opportunities abound and afternoons disappear in impromptu chats about start-ups, technology and e-commerce. The Austin bar scene is overtaken by techies throwing parties, and of course the primary reason people attend SXSW, The Sessions. I was initially somewhat daunted by the sheer volume of topics from which to choose, but I mustered my courage, knowing that I had been chosen for this mission for my plucky and intrepid nature. The diversity of topics presented was formidable. The information presented could capture the interest of the focused software engineer, of the marketing executive, of the product manager………and of the director of engineering of an e-commerce startup. There were topics such as Branding and Marketing, Culture, Science + Play, Design and Development, Health and Education, New Business, and even Government and Global among others. So now all I had to do was choose…
Finally, I had done it. I had my focused list of sessions that was most relevant to the technical and leadership aspects of my role at GC, but I also was able to make it to sessions that were of general interest to me. I attended a mobile payment panel discussion, and a discussion of advanced API design in which GC’s API was mentioned! I heard Baratunde Thurston (of The Onion) discuss the use of satire in effecting change and making the world a better place. I watched Dennis Crowley discuss foursquare and admired his passionate drive to make the real world easier to navigate. I had my “celebrity encounter” as I watched Rainn Wilson discussing his personal project to help people connect via SoulPancake, heard a fascinating discussion on the future of bio-computing, and another about scaling to infinity, which is a problem we are currently solving at GC. In his post, Andrew expounded upon the discussion between Al Gore and Sean Parker which was also one of my favorites, but there were further discussions in the Government and Global domain. I was particularly intrigued by a keynote discussion of the underutilization of modern coding practices and technologies in government software applications and opportunities for fellowship opportunities in a program called Code for America. These fellowships are already effecting change within the government infrastructure and also affecting the community as a whole with some of the creative ideas the fellows have come up with. You’ve already heard about Stephen Wolfram’s presentation of the nearly-impossible-to-imagine processing power and data library that has led to Wolfram Alpha, and the as-yet-unknown future implications of it. I won’t go into all those details again, but what I will say is that in my career, I have found it to be rare that vast, creative software intelligence is accompanied by an eloquence and social presence that is almost as impressive. You could basically ask this guy any question in the world, and he would come up with a totally cogent and interesting answer. If you ever have the chance to hear Wolfram speak, I would highly recommend it. There were many other sessions that I attended, a discussion of content as a means for social change, and a multitude of social media and social networking technologies offered by startups through the Microsoft Accelerator Program. All in all, it was a tremendous learning opportunity across a wide variety of topics.
But I’m not quite done with you yet. There’s one of the sessions I’d like to tell you more about, and that’s the keynote “Expanding Our Intelligence Without Limit” with Ray Kurzweil. In this talk, Kurzwiel talked about the exponential growth of both computing power and data storage that will fundamentally change the way we live our lives and that, according to him, will ultimately give the human race seemingly-unbounded potential. According to Kurzwiel, “ At its current rate of growth, within a quarter century, non-biological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence. We’ll get to a point where technical progress will be so fast that unenhanced human intelligence will be unable to follow it.” This is known as the singularity. Kurzwiel believes that by using this power combined with corresponding exponential advances in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics we will ultimately be able to cure all diseases and live forever in a full-immersion virtual reality, operating machines only with our minds. I know. This sounds like geeky science fiction stuff right? Turns out it’s not as far away as you think, it is much closer. Kurzweil estimates that by 2030, a thousand dollars of computation will be about a thousand times more powerful than a human brain, in every way. This brief description barely scratches the surface of this exciting (and maybe a little scary?) theory. If you’re interested, I highly recommend you read his book, “The Singularity is Near” or the Feb 2011 issue of Time Magazine. I, meanwhile, will be maniacally trying to plan for scenarios in which someone can buy an offer just by thinking about it.
What I found really interesting about all of these sessions is that while their topics were very diverse and varied, they all had a central message woven into them, which I believe was a central message of SXSW Interactive 2012: Computing power and dedicated, creative, intelligent people wielding it, can and will fundamentally change the world.
In summary, SXSW Interactive was incredibly informative (which I expected), and incredibly inspiring (which I didn’t expect). I thoroughly enjoyed all the energetic and creative entrepreneurs I encountered, and enjoyed even more discussing what we do here at GC and how we might fit into their world of e-commerce. Experiencing the conference with an awesome group of my fellow GC’ers was just the icing on the cake.« back to the Blog