Fear, food and the internet of things at SXSW

Unfortunate timing means I’ll miss a huge chunk of this year’s South by Southwest Interactive festival happening in my hometown of Austin, Texas this year. I’m both saddened a bit relieved since it is my 14th year attending the festival, and it will be a nice to have a break. And yet … there are always so many chances to see something new and fun and mind-expanding.

This year looks like it will be no exception. As always, I’ve scanned through the list of panels, sessions and random parties hitting my inbox to get a sense of the annual themes. What also emerges is a pretty good picture of how the event and my city has changed since 2001 when I moved back (I think I started attending SXSW again in 2002 if you’re counting).

Most people are aware that the event has shifted from a grubby collection of do-gooder nerds worried about web culture to a glossy, corporate crowd that still celebrates web culture and digs into technology and science in meaningful ways, although the marketing gimmicks and sports coats abound. Some of the sports coats are very fancy, European sports coats with deconstructed stitching that wouldn’t be out of place in the film or music festival.

But whether you’re sporting a hoodie or a Rag and Bone blazer, this year’s festival seems to have taken a somewhat darker turn in the post-Snowden-era. Despite Edward Snowden actually teleporting in (okay he did it via teleconference) for a session last year, many of this year’s panels feature government speakers, concerns about data privacy, surveillance or the implications of our love affair with data in all things. Some examples include:

Even if you aren’t worried about government surveillance, there’s an acute sense of monitoring, and how connectivity changes thing, not necessarily for social good, but perhaps merely for commence. In fact, commerce is a big theme, and maybe even one that should be examined a bit more deeply than it currently is in some of these panels:

And after showing up en masse in 2011, the marriage of technology and food has been a continuing these at SXSW ever since, and I for one welcome the idea that technology and sensors can help monitor consumption and improving growing conditions and perhaps somehow help make food more trackable online. Evidently there are many others who feel the same way because it’s still a common theme at SXSW as these panels show. I’d love to catch Nathan Myrvold speaking on Sunday about modernist cuisine on the Breaking a Few Rules panel.

And where would a post from me be without the internet of things? The connected world and sensors runs through many of the panels mentioned above but also gets plenty of its own dedicated events, especially on Saturday, and many of them are located at the J.W Marriott hotel.

Of course, there are many other themes you can tease out of the hundreds of events associated with SXSW. My advice to anyone attending is always to go with a loose plan in mind and to roll with the day as it unfolds. I will say that for the first time ever for a select amount (less than 5 percent) of general events programming, SXSW is offering pre-registration for some panels and talks.

Some SXSW events held in the new JW Marriott hotel that opened at the end of February will have a pre-registration for attendees. So for many of the IoT events, for example, you’ll have the chance to sign up to attend in advance. This will give you a guaranteed spot, but it also means that you need to pre-plan if you really want to hit up an event.

Hugh Forrest, director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, said that last year the festival offered the chance to let people sign up for workshops in advance at the far-away AT&T conference center venue, and this year wanted to try it at the new, JW Marriott venue which has some smaller rooms. He wrote via email:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]People liked the ability to sign up for slots in advance. This was particularly so for the workshops at the AT&T (since the AT&T is about a 10 minute bus ride from downtown Austin and people didn’t want to make that kind of time commitment without knowing they were assured a spot in the given workshop room). … For 2015, we have isolated this program to workshops at the JW Marriott, as well as some of the smaller rooms at the JW Marriott. Since the JW Marriott is a new venue, we wanted to try to control some of the more complicated variables at this space. Smaller rooms definitely mean more complicated venues.

If the pre-registration works out, Forrest and his team may expand it next year. For SXSW 2015, though, you may want to check the schedule and see if any of your panels require (or offer) advanced registration. You’ll still need to arrive early to get a coveted seat near an outlet. After all, Forrest expects that the event will see somewhere in the neighborhood of 33,000 total attendees — a bit of growth from 2014, but not a whole lot.

And that’s the other aspect of SXSW that mirrors Austin as a whole. The city has grown like crazy in the last 15 years or so. In fact recent census data shows the city grew the most of any large U.S. city between 2010 and 2013. You can feel it in the growth of the festival, in the caliber of the hotels going up to serve the visitors to SXSW and the three-year-old Formula 1 track and in the quality of the restaurants and bars that now host the SXSW parties.

I remember attending SXSW events in dive bars with random bands and now I’m being invited to interactive parties being hosted by big-name corporate brands with TI performing. It’s certainly a much bigger scene on all fronts. And yet, underneath the glitter and glitz, the love of tech is still there. So if you’re heading down to Austin, don’t be afraid to push pass the branding to uncover the real reason SXSW is still going strong — the tech.