Screen XSW Update: Greg Proops Is Awesome, Amber Case keynote
March 11, 2012 by Andrew Schneider
There’s always so much to do at SXSW that it feels that they’re aren’t enough hours in the day. When you throw in Daylight Savings Time, which, of course, I forgot, it turns out there weren’t as many hours as I was expecting.
Last year, I remember feeling that, though we’re all on the cutting edge of technology, it was almost as if the entire festival was a vast caricature with people sitting at charging stations with two phones, a computer, an iPad and more.
Enter Comedian Greg Proops; he gave a “free” performance here Saturday night and did a fairly good, if unsuitable for print, lambasting of the ways that smart phones are inseparable from nearly every attendee here. That’s after describing the weather here by saying it had been like the day Christ died since he arrived in Austin. His most hilarious comment IMO: “everyone here looks like they had written a bad review of ‘The Last Airbender’ on their blog.”
He implored everyone to look up and notice those around them. I think that gets to the heart of what this festival is really about – the serendipitous meeting. There are a lot of people that connect with their local friends while they’re here, but the real strength of the place is the conversation on the escalator or waiting for coffee. Ideas cross-polinate and I think we’re all much better for it.
There are panels, of course, which are awesome. Happy Hour at Roial, thanks to Razorfish. And the keynotes.
Anthropologist Amber Case spoke Sunday afternoon. Her work focuses on the interaction between human beings and cutting-edge technologies. She argues that human beings once used technologies to enhance their physical powers, stronger or faster, for example. Today’s technologies, computers, smart phones, etc. allow humans to extend their mental powers.
Walking away from the keynote, her main point was that the best technology is invisible. That it should and would get out of the way and let you live your life.
Charting the evolution of tools, she noted that a hammer from thousands of years ago approximates the size and shape of one today. Refinements are made, primarily, to power and precision. But comparing a computer of the 1950s to today’s, they look nothing alike.
It’s because the technology is amorphous – liquid displays on smartphones and tablets have only accentuated that tendency and, as Shakespeare wrote, it really is us that gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
She illustrates the nature of our existence with slides that showed a year’s worth of cell phone data (it’s 2,000 pounds) and Nick Rodrigues’ email garden – an installation that created a sort of faux grass that grew as emails came into his computer.
Her point, as I took it, is that modern computational devices have put enormous strains on our lives. Managing the flow of in-coming email can be a burden, as everyone knows. How do we put modern technology to work to life that burden.
Well, citing the work of Steve Mann who employed wearable computers since the 1980s, she argues that development of augmented reality will in fact create a diminished reality. The computers and heads-up displays as aids that will allow us to tune out the things we don’t want to see, advertisements for example, and help us manage the flow of information in such a way that we use our “superhuman” powers available through our phones and computers to create a seamless existence.
She did air one misgiving; all the information is ethereal, it’s hanging in the air, or on server racks. In contrast to the Facebook wall, she showed the wall of an ancient Egyptian building covered with hieroglyphs. The ancient system preserved the record quite well, she noted.
There are other short-comings – many current-day metaphors exist in software. Apple’s e-reader has a page-turn animation that she hates. Battery drain is a problem for geo-location like her Geoloqi geo-location system.
But ultimately, she expects our smartphones to become remote controls for reality so that we’re no longer chained to a desktop and are able to live in reality without letting go of our superhuman problems.
Change is always sort of terrifying. The question posed by modern technology is whether it allows us to live free of constraints or merely disguises the constraints it puts on us.