SXSWi: Drowning in the Sea of Change

SXSW is a celebration of innovation: in film, music, and interactive technologies. This is the third time I’ve gone to SXSWi, and every year I am happier I spent the time and treasure to attend. Yesterday I went to perhaps the best session I attended this year, Andrew Keen’s intimate talk on  ”Is Innovation Fair?”  Andrew is a highly educated dude who spoke without notes, slides, or external props. He actually used his brain in his talk. No Prezi, no Powerpoint. And he provoked much thought inside me on the nature of innovation. Everyone says we need more of it — but do we? Can we really absorb any more of it? I’m an innovator, an early adopter, a change-junkie. But what about the people around me?

In the course of an hour, Andrew covered the history of philosopy from Socrates to social media, pointing out that throughout history man has searched for ideal forms that don’t change, and has still been caught up in the whirlwind of change. And every century, the pace gets faster.

This, of course, is my “objective” interpretation. Andrew’s more controversial position is that we worship innovation for its own sake, especially at SXSW, without remembering that with all change there are winners and losers. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the peasants lost, and the manufacturing giants won. Now the current wave of innovation is washing over, for example, the newspaper industry, and the “crowd” appears to be winning. A major moment of social Darwinism is upon us.

Here are some of the implications of the crowd’s victory:

1) Brands that have spent years and billions to build themselves get destroyed overnight, erasing billions of dollars of equity for investors (Toyota)

2) A cadre of elites, Keen calls them dismissively “A-List Bloggers,” emerges and controls public opinion ( Red State Blog, Daily Kos). They are the new thought leaders.

3) The social contract breaks down as traditional government collapses under the weight of individual extremist factions who don’t want to pay taxes for things they can’t see, don’t want their privacy controlled, don’t want corporations controlling Congress

4) Jobs vanish and never come back as film, journalism, and music are sucked into the online community and become “free” and communication becomes instantaneous

5) The individual (the consumer, customer, client, patient) is overwhelmed with data points, drowned in the real time stream

6) The cry for curation becomes louder and louder

7) The new curators create a revolution in and of themselves, causing further “creative destruction”

8) Patients are empowered, and the entire practice of medicine must change

9) Students are customers/consumers, and the education system of the 19th century is overthrown

10) If you are not an innovator, you are not destined to survive.

The celebratory party atmosphere at SXSW is a Mardi Gras mask that hides the incredible change through which we are now living. As Keen reminded me yesterday, “history is written by the winners.” SXSW is a convention of winners. Survivors. Darwinians. Swimmers afloat in the real time swim.

Life jackets may be in order for everyone else.

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