Current Commentary

Coming Next


TV Series Theory

LA in the 1970s:

Experimental Finance


Part I: The Long Goodbye

Comes of Age





March 11, 2013


Mutual Funds
Risk Management
Experimental Finance
Online Articles
Books and Articles
Finance Notes
Rigged Online
About Us
Contact Info

Nerd Nerd Revolution
Part II: SXSW 2009


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
March 23, 2009

Going to this year's SXSW (South by Southwest, or just "Southby" ) Interactive Conference in Austin, Texas was like arriving to a party late, several years late. Like Lindsey Buckingham, it could well be that I'm never going back again, but it was worth the belated visit and was, regardless of how I make it appear below, a great experience. It certainly beats any finance or economics conference that I have ever attended. Rather than throngs of boring, self-involved, petty penguins, SXSW had many friendly and interesting people, especially from the film and music segments of the conference. And Austin, as always, is an amazing and unique place that accurately bills itself as "weird."

That the true SXSW died long ago was the central focus of a talk given by cyberpunk pioneer and former full-time Austinian, Bruce Sterling. Mr. Sterling, a contemporary of mine and a fellow professional writer and journalist, was supposed to be telling us about the future, but he ended up dwelling on the past. SXSW is famous for being the "birthplace" of Twitter, but back in pre-Twitter times Sterling held an annual SXSW party at his Austin home. This one-small soiree evolved into an even of near-riot proportions as word got out electronically and much of the now-enormous conference converged on his house. This year, Sterling held an updated version of that party on the stage of the packed-to-the-gills main ballroom of the Austin Convention Center, guzzling beer on the podium and tossing chips out into the audience (while saving the choice Doritos for himself). Sterling bemoaned the death of the old media and the fact that his publishers were crooks (big surprise there).

The turning point of the talk was when he addressed the assembled mass as "the people formerly known as the audience," a phrase that was instantly tweeted around the world. Sterling was painfully aware (sorry for the cliché) that his audience was wired to the hilt with the latest electronic toys and many were more connected to the cybercloud (at the full 20Mbps provided by the conference's neat Wi-Fi system) than to his physical presence on stage.

Despite Mr. Sterling's theatrics, more was indeed going on in the ballroom itself than onstage. Those of us with prime ballroom seats had to get to the talk early, and I spent most of the 30-minute wait demoing the touch features of my ThinkPad X61t tablet computer to the two Macbook-toting guys seated next to me. Indeed, that ballroom contained more Macbooks than I have previously seen in my entire life, with a few netbooks and even fewer Windows laptops dotting the "audience." I also learned at SXSW that it was de rigueur to carry both an iPhone and a Blackberry. (I have neither on general principles, just a sad Verizon LG VX8380 that started vibrating with an urgent message ten minutes before Sterling's ended).

Until it got warm in Austin on the next-to-last day of the interactive conference, I tucked my trusty Linux-based Nokia N800 in my jacket pocket and used it to surf the web instead of the bulkier ThinkPad. I saw no other N-series Nokias at the conference and no one asked me about it because they probably thought it just an odd model of iPhone, which is pretty much what it is if you ignore the fact that it is a full-fledged and completely open tiny computer. The combination of the 5-inch N-series Nokias with any small dual-core notebook computer simply blows away any netbook. You cannot put a netbook in your shirt or jacket pocket like you can with the Nokias and you cannot do real computing on it either like you can with a notebook computer. Even with their awkward form factor and other limitations, netbooks are certainly coming on strong.

With the possible exception of Bruce Sterling, the talks and panels that I attended were uniformly lacking. As a Twitter noob (visit me at, I missed much of the "real conference" that was taking place on the Twitter backchannel. The poseurs on stage often did little more than set the topic for the Twitterati. Bruce Sterling acknowledged this; however, some other speakers appeared to be in denial of their limited role in the conversation. For many attendees, the talks appeared to be superfluous, with the plentiful parties being the whole point of the conference. As part of my research, I "crashed" one of Microsoft's private parties (I assume that Microsoft held several of them), which was indeed far superior to the one that I attended that was open to all SXSW attendees. (Like Studio 54 during the time between the Quaalude Age and the Cocaine Age, every private party had a "list;" however, I do not believe in lists because really important people are not on them--Obama, Obama, Obama, I don't see your name on the list.)

I do not doubt that something great and wonderful was being introduced to the world at SXSW; however, I do not think that I saw it there. This is par for the course for me because I attended the 1979 National Computer Conference in Manhattan was no one of the handful of people to see Bob Frankston unveil Visicalc (forerunner of Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel) there because I was more interested in all the nifty graphics stuff on display. (I also attended the very last National Computing Conference in Anaheim in 1983 where days of 100-degree heat melted down several of the computers on display as well as the conference itself. My favorite conference of all time was the 1980 Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, which occupied all of Astrodomain and then some. Unfortunately, I could not wangle myself a free helicopter ride.)

What I did get at SXSW was a glimpse of the future, and it was unsettling. A world of persistent and pervasive electronic linkage will be a very different world than most people, especially those in government, might even start to imagine. It could very be that the most significant thing at SXSW was the Lost Zombies phenomenon, which was buried in the back of the smallish trade show part of the conference. Whatever the Lost Zombies are supposed to be, what they really are is a proof-of-concept for a populist overthrow of governments world-wide. No wonder that the U.S. stimulus package gives wireless technology the short shrift. And one can only imagine what will happen when individual investors enjoy the same persistent connectivity as the big players. With Iowa's Senator Grassley among those having called for the death of AIG executives, it is no wonder that their home addresses have yet to be released to the public.

All folks at SXSW were friendly, but only when they were not preoccupied with their gadgets, which was infrequently. All times it seemed like the entire Austin Convention Center, and not just the back of the trade show, was packed with lost zombies. I saw this coming a long, long time ago (which was why I only got a mobile phone once it become absolutely necessary), but it took SXSW to demonstrate to me just how bad things could get. And it is not like everyone who is connected is even happy about it. Virtually everyone I know professionally has a Blackberry and when I talk to them about my possibly getting one, they tell me to avoid them like the plague. Fortunately for me, Verizon has a pathetic selection of phones, so I'm stuck with my cheapo LG model for now. (Ironically, the folks with iPhones exclusive serviced by AT&T often found themselves disconnected at SXSW because they were overloading the local towers while Verizon worked like a dream the few times I used it there.)

While SXSW may be the grand annual nerdfest, nerds seem to be everywhere in the mass media nowadays. Indeed, one could say that the U.S. now has its first nerd president (or second after Jimmy Carter). Next month, back on the second Monday as usual, I will continue my 2009 celebration of nerds with "Nerds on TV."

Copyright 2009 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to