Is SXSW going South?

South by South West (SXSW) is the world’s biggest tech conference by some margin. Curiously, it’s also a big film festival and a music festival (if you pay extra). And it’s a noisy place – in every respect. There are stands, talks, tents, street acts, hustlers, stages and a whole lot of activity wherever you look. It’s a lot to take in and no mistake. At any one time there may be twenty different talks or events you can attend with topics as far apart as supersonic jets, emojis and new adjectives for food.

Needless to say, you spend a LOT of time planning your day and attempting to cut through all the noise to try and find content of value to you. And in this, you hit up the talks that you want to see and hope the queues are not too long (you don’t always get what you want).

If you’re me, by the end of the day you’ve done 20,000 steps, walked around 15km and your head hurts from the randomness of the day you’ve just had. And then the dust settles and you have a little time before sleep to ponder what you have seen and heard.

It is in this moment that I have made the realisation that whilst the routines and challenges of SXSW have not changed, the level and nature of its content has. The edge that made it world famous has gone. This is less of a place where you launch brands like Twitter (it did) and more a place of generalised tech knowledge sharing. It might just be me but the amount of new learning I got has gone done. The wow moments were almost hourly, now you hope for one in your day.

That doesn’t make it worthwhile, it just changes who it is worthwhile for. It is now a tech conference for the masses – less cutting edge, more cutting out the complicated. As an example, I recently sat through a talk given by Intel on AI. They showed some nice AI companies out there and showed off some of their own kit. All very nice but they didn’t dig deep. You learned nothing about AI, how it works, how it can be exploited – only that stuff is being done with it – oh, and using Intel processors of course.

My recommendation? If you’re not in and about technology every day and you’d like to broaden your horizons, today’s SXSW is for you. However, if you’re into tech, you’re an innovator, then it’s a bit weak. If you want to cut yourself on a bleeding edge of technology, might I suggest Tech Open Air (TOA) in Berlin? It’s a hot mess of a setup and relies quite a lot on the weather being decent (a lot of it is outdoors – clue is in the name) but it’s a place where I genuinely felt close to the new and was being taken on a deep dive to really learn more about it. See you in Berlin…