South By Southwest Interactive 2013 Preview (#SXSWi)

Welcome to Firedoglake’s coverage of SXSW Interactive 2013.

Kit OConnell

Kit O’Connell covers SXSW Interactive 2013 for Bytegeist.

Some of you are probably familiar with me as the weekday editor of MyFDL or from my work as the FDL correspondent on stories like the Gulf Port 7 trial. This week, I’m bringing the SXSW Interactive conference to the Lake. SXSW began in 1986 as a ‘small’ Austin music festival that almost immediately became a national concern for any musicians wanting to accelerate their careers. Soon, the music festival was joined by a film festival, and then an interactive conference. Today, there is even a comedy festival and an education arm.

SXSW Interactive is world-renowned as a place where startup companies strike the deals that make them successful, where cutting edge mobile apps are launched, and where corporations come to master the use of new technologies.

None of that really interests me, to be honest — there are countless websites where you can learn the latest corporate news about where the venture capital is flying.

Instead, I want to look at what these technologies mean for our future at the intersection of tech and politics. It’s almost trite to point out how fast our world is changing but it’s true nonetheless. Innovative, disruptive technologies are altering how we communicate, socialize, organize, how we keep and share secrets. During chaotic times, there are always some who celebrate how new ideas will save our world and others who decry how they’ll bring about our doom. The truth is almost always somewhere in between — new technologies change us. Humanity is still evolving, sometimes quite quickly, and to pretend we’re still (or should be) the same as our plains-dwelling ancestors strikes me as misguided and naive.

Of course, we must go into the future with our eyes open. New technologies bring new dangers, and sometimes those dangers only become apparent when we ask who is in control. The answers are rarely simple — modern mobile and camera technologies increase the ease of government surveillance, but also create the possibility of citizen sousveillance. I want to know what’s coming, not so we can try to stuff the genies back in their bottles, but so we can liberate their wishes for the people, not just the powerful.

With that in mind, I’ll be spending the next 5 days looking not for the biggest news at the conference but what’s most interesting, by my own subjective terms. FDL’s SXSW team is made up of just a single person, so it will naturally be my small view on a very large event. With that said, I would love to hear your questions, tips, and requests. Of course, if any of you will be at SXSW be sure to let me know!

I’ll be posting regular updates on Bytegeist and tweeting on @KitOConnell throughout the event. My #SXSW tweets will appear on the sidebar of, and you can go straight to my coverage just by visiting

Here are a few highlights I hope to cover. I’ve shared my full SXSW schedule (requires free login), but of course I will only hit a portion of the events on that list.


Aaron Swartz

Friday night at SXSW Interaction 2013, an Open Town Hall will discuss the legacy of Aaron Swartz. No badges will be required.

Events formally begin on Friday at the Austin Convention Center and several other locations throughout town. In addition to formal conference venues, many companies rent houses or facilities for parties and events. Non-profits will try to attract programmers at all-day hackathon for social good. A wide variety of technological innovators will come together at SXSW Create. The entire conference features a lot of ‘Maker’ related topics, including explorations of 3D print-on-demand technologies.

Later in the day, the University of Texas Radionavigation Lab will talk about Extreme GPS: The Limits of Security and Precision. The Radionavigation Lab received worldwide attention last year when they used about $1,000 in parts to hijack a drone in front of DHS officials.

Free: Friday evening’s Aaron Swartz Open Town Hall may end up being one of the most important events of the entire conference. Led by David Segal of Demand Progress, this event is free to anyone even if you don’t have a badge. Presenters, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jennifer Lynch, will discuss Swartz’s legacy and what we can do to prevent this tragedy from occurring again. I expect it to be well attended and thought-provoking.


Gabriella Coleman

Anthropologist and Anonymous scholar Gabriella Coleman will read from her new book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.

Similar to TED talks, SXSW hosts a series of short speeches called Future15, with topics like Plug Me In: Neural Interfaces for Musicians. There’s a lot of interesting topics, but I won’t try to list them all here. I’ll drop in and tweet from the best when I can.

A panel on Sources in the Social Media Age raises interesting issues of what it means to be a journalist in the modern era. A number of panels throughout the weekend address similar issues. It’s clear that journalism is changing, with the slow death of traditional print media and the rise of the Twitter journalist.

Many time slots through out the weekend are so full of great panels that I wish I could clone myself, but that’s not yet one of the technologies discussed. The 12:30pm Central time slot on Saturday is a tough call. Taboo Travel will discuss the effect of widely available satellite imagery on ‘hidden’ places like Area 51 and the plastic garbage island in the ocean. If that’s not interesting, choose between Digital Telepathy: When Everything Connects and The Skin As Metaphor: Fashion, Technology and Body.

Later in the day, anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, known for her study of Anonymous, will read from and sign her new book Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.


Can the Internet help end female genital mutilation? The founder of the Orchid Project will tell us why she thinks it can in A Movement Online to End Female Genital Cutting.

In Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Drone? we’ll hear about the positive side of drones such as their potential use by journalists. During the same hour, legal experts will gather to discuss Copyright & Disruptive Technologies, including how laws like SOPA & PIPA get made.

Lever Burton

LeVar Burton is among the many supporters of space flight in Austin for SXSW.

Journalists from Time, CNN, NPR, and NBC will consider how mainstream media outlets can tap into citizen journalism on social media in Global News After the Twitter Revolutions. Sadly, as a notorious “maple chaser,” I might have to take in the Smart Canadians Drinks Party instead.

Free: Queer rights group GetEqual TX will March for LGBTQ Justice on Sunday evening. With the Texas legislature in session, several bills are under consideration. One example is SB 237, which would prevent workplace discrimination. After all, marriage only goes so far if you can get fired for being gay …


Topics of space flight are featured all through the weekend, but two exciting panels on Monday are New Golden Age of Human Spaceflight and 100 Year Starship: Interstellar Travel and Beyond. LeVar Burton is one of the featured guests at the latter panel, which discusses a DARPA-funded project to ensure humans are capable of interstellar journeys in the near future (at speaking least on a galactic scale).

Of course, if starships aren’t your thing, you could spend an hour thinking about sex and technology. Kink Academy founder Kali Williams will talk about 5o Shades of Grey — a terrible novel which provides a fascinating window into the sexuality of many American women in Fantasy vs. Reality: The 50 Shades Phenomenon. At the same time slot, Laura G Duncan will take the audience from fantasy fembots of fiction to real-world teledildonics in Hey, Where’s My Robot Girlfriend?

An Online Activism Meetup brings activists and citizen journalists together to network and talk. Another meetup style event, I Am My Own Social Network forces the tech-dependent to give up their phones for an hour and interact face to face.

I already wrote about it on MyFDL, but I am beyond excited to see They Might Be Giants in conversation with comedian Eugene Mirman. 

Other highights: Bullying: Social Media as Problem and Solution, a psychologist answers What’s the Matter with Batman? and Shooting For Impact: Online Documentary Shorts.

Occupy Austin offers free events at OccupySouthby this week. Tonight includes Augmented Reality and Activism, a free version of an earlier panel featuring Patrick Lichty, jonL and Alan Sonhiem. Later, cut loose at Occupy the Dance Floor.


Anonymous mask wearers wave

In the new era, what does it mean to be a journalist? What do identity and anonymity mean today?

The future blurs the lines between what seemed clearly defined. When online information is quickly available to us in the real world, what is Privacy in the Age of Augmented Reality? Similarly, members of the media now engage directly on Twitter, and people like myself report using new tools like smartphones. Is it Social Media or Is it Journalism?

Of course, the future also brings certain concerns for us all — that of our mortality. The Tangled Web We Leave: Digital Life After Death considers how we’ll handle our online presence when our physical one ends.

The federal government continues to believe it can stamp out Anonymous by making high profile arrests and charging those arrested with the highest penalties imaginable. Yet the concept of Anonymous seems to persist, reaching deeper into our culture every day. Historian Katie Engehart and First Amendment lawyer Nabiha Syed will look at the historical concept of anonymity and its modern implications in What’s In A Name? Anonymity, Then and Now.

Futurist and author Bruce Sterling returns to give his famous SXSW Interactive Closing Remarks, but you can also catch Deadmau5 and DJ Richie Hawtin in Talk. Techno. Technology.

Later that night, attendees can celebrate surviving 5 days of grueling drinking, talking, and thinking with a special Cirque De Soleil performance called #Evoke13.

Occupy Southby: Hip hop and rap emcees will Occupy the Cypher using Occupy Austin’s mobile sound system at 10am Central at the Texas State Capitol.

Portrait of Kit by Ósk Grimm. Aaron Swartz photo by Doc Searls released under a Creative Commons license. Gabriella Coleman portrait by Gary Barber released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license. Photo of Levar Burton by Gage Skidmore released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license. Anonymous by liryon released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license. 

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Kit OConnell

Kit OConnell

Kit O’Connell is a gonzo journalist and radical troublemaker from Austin, Texas. He is the Associate Editor and Community Manager of Shadowproof. Kit's investigative journalism has appeared in Truthout, MintPress News and