Inside Out

It occurred to me last week—and I mentioned this to a friend of mine—that the topics and environs of SXSW Interactive had permeated and overwhelmed me in such a way that I had felt the need to recede into myself in consideration and also in self-defense. I began referring to the overall tone of the event as a cocktail—a potent mix of culture, politics, technology, philosophy, humor, and both political correctness and incorrectness. Overlaying this was an at-times contradictory overall mood, exuberant and geeky as you’d expect at a conference like this, but with a dark side of thoughtfulness and fear. This is what happens when you follow a panel about How to Trick Out Your Blog with Spam, Trolls, Stalkers: The Pandora’s Box of Community. In other words, it’s all fun and games until somebody figures out your home address from your domain registration. And this is just in the blogging track! If you took an excursion to the political side of things—as nearly everyone seemed to gauging by the attendance at events featuring Ana Marie Cox, Dan Gillmor, and Al Franken—things got significantly darker.

Just now, in a bit of synchronicity, yet with no actual connectivity that I know of, reading Michael Ventura’s most recent “Letter at 3am” column from the Austin Chronicle, I began to reconsider my perception that I had been turned inward by the event. I now believe that what in fact happened was that I was turned outward to such an unaccustomed extent that I, for a time, was thinking completely outside myself.

For someone as narcissistic and self-absorbed as I usually am, this is such a rare experience that it’s easy to see how I could misinterpret it. I’m used to all of my considerations and pains being internal or at least confined to a very narrow sphere of interest that may (or may not, depending on the day) include my family, friends, work and hobbies. Even when I take the time to consider the state of the world—and talk about painful!—I tend to frame it in such a way as to still make it about me. Yet this week, I think something else was going on.

I’ve been looking for a hook on which to hang several things I’ve been considering since SXSW. On the one hand you have blogging and journalism and the mainstream media and the more general subject of information-sharing on a global scale, which also ties into intellectual property and truth and perception and memes and publicity. On the other hand you have the reality that all these media are attempting to describe: the environment and politics and technology and globalization and the economy. Though I think calling politics and economics “reality” might be a bit of a stretch since they are in actuality meta-realities laid over actual reality that have become so powerful and pervasive as to seem real (wait, you thought The Matrix was about machines taking over? No, see, that would have required a lack of metaphor that only James Cameron could have put forth with a straight face and a $100 million budget).

But the Matrix metaphor is too big and overextended to be my hook. It needs to be something more basic than that: a single hook, not the whole armoire. How about “distraction?” Distraction works because it’s half of what the media does, and we accept this because the state of reality and our part in it is such that we want a distraction far more than we want the truth. This last bit occurred to me directly during the Bruce Sterling/Alex Steffen keynote at SXSW and was confirmed when I re-read the ad hoc transcript and comments following it. My complaint, and it seems to be a common one, is that this is all so depressing, we’re in such incredibly deep shit, that it really doesn’t seem realistic that driving a Prius or buying a solar backpack is going to get us out of the world’s problems. Just how bad are thing? Check out the footnotes, especially what they refer to as The Great Wager (though if you don’t want to read that whole thing, I’ll sum it up here: we’ve bet that we as a species can innovate faster than we populate, that is that we can get smarter faster than we get bigger, though so far we haven’t, and the gamble is the ecosystem of the entire planet).

There were a lot of dire predictions at this conference. Gillmor is worried that the First Amendment is dead, Franken is worried that democracy is dead, and Sterling is worried that we’re all dead. They all warn us that politicians and corporations (including media corporations) are playing games with us and messing with our heads. They all believe, and I tend to agree, that we’re all so misinformed, confused, conflicted, and yes, distracted, that we’re are no longer capable of seeing the world as it really is, even if we wanted to, which we most likely do not. What’s really weird is that all of these people received a forum at a conference which is ostensibly about doing cool stuff with computers. What’s cool and “interactive” about keeping speech free, combating partisan, populist jingoism and saving the planet? Hard to figure! Yet somehow, in the midst of of an event that was ostensibly about new and innovative forms of distraction, I managed, for a time, to become un-distracted by the concerns of my own life and entertainment and personal gratification and get a glimpse at the bigger picture. Good thing there was free beer every night.

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