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Chris Magyar

South By Useless

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Most people are full of shit (present company included), so South By Southwest Interactive is a tiring exercise of waiting for a genuine idea or practical piece of information to drop. In between these gems, it's just noises dressed up to sound like music.

Take this fast-talking faker:

This is Jason Silva. He was given a prime spot in one of the main ballrooms in the main convention center, and his talk was, if anything, marginally more useless than this video. For those who can't stand to suffer through all three minutes, his schtick boils down to:

  • Speak quickly
  • Use Latinate words
  • Quote (name-drop) people
  • Look surprised
  • Sound excited
  • Express unalloyed wonder at common knowledge

These sentences flow like pastiche, like preacher patter. "Human beings are capable of literally more and more exponential progress to the point where matter is subsumed by the powers of our comprehension and what we imagine literally becomes reality," is not a direct quote, or maybe it is. It's hard to say because his sentence structure resembles monkeys tapping typewriters with buzzwords instead of letters on the keys. But wow, isn't that sentence impressive for saying "man is intelligent, and learns things, and builds things." He states something along those lines several times in the video. This is knowledge so ancient, it's not even considered worthy of mention in the Bible after the first chapter of Genesis.

But there's money to be made in being such a vessel. Silva is a hype man for humanity, the Flava Flav to mankind's Chuck D. He's careful to pander - note how he gracelessly exhorts the coming age of genetic engineering while denouncing Monsanto in a toothless aside - but it doesn't matter what his opinions may be, as his stance is essentially that whatever you've thought of is great! This obviously goes over well in a room full of people launching their own social media app.

It's fitting that his video closes with a Nietzsche quote, because I find such blather to be nihilist. I don't care whether Silva actually believes in his own evangelism or purveys it cynically. Intent is unimportant, because the harm is that his baby food philosophy is celebrated as intelligence, rather negating the wonder of the intelligence he sees constantly all around himself. He espouses a godless reverence for ourselves (in another video, he dedicates a speed-read Lawnmower-Man clip-art montage to the benefits of narcissism, though he calls it "the mirroring mind" and frames it as a "gee whiz" about basic brain function), and there's no other end point to godless self-reverence than nihilism. Whatever you've thought of is great! It will change the world! Keep chasing your tail! (And don't worry about whatever Monsanto's doing, I'm sure it will be stopped by somebody else who's not having great ideas right now and therefore very busy.)

Let's contrast with this:

This is Joe Gerstandt, and I don't just like him because he has a stand-up comedian's patter. Sure, he goes for a lot of easy humor here, but this is not an all-frill presentation meant to turn a brain off. At its core, this is a bold message to people working in a corporate environment: take the risk of telling the truth. Profanity is the hook that opens people's minds to what he's saying. If he were spouting platitudes or merely quoting others over his montage of memes, he'd be no better than Silva. But he's doing the very thing that great comedians do: Shocking people with a truth they already knew.

It's one thing to motivate corporate employees by telling them to stop using jargon and start getting real. It's another thing to tell them to swear in front of their boss. And it's yet another thing to tell them to swear and kick and scream and fight in front of their boss. Of course, the caveat here is that in the talk I saw (small back room in a satellite hotel on the sixth floor with a few rows of chairs), Gerstandt lets it be known that he's good at getting fired. But then so are many entrepreneurs. That's why they're entrepreneurs. And what people who have done the work to get their social media app off the ground sometimes fail to realize is that they are the boss now. They are the manager. The sneaky thing about Gerstandt is that he's pleasing the plebian crowd, but he's really aiming his message at the patrician back row. It's the overreaction of bosses to swearing that needs to change, not the willingness of the disgruntled to pop a gasket.

Technology is earthy, but because it's also transformative, we tend to speak of it in tones of awe, tend to name it with unfamiliar syllables to emphasize its strangeness. But technology is a tool as pedestrian as wheels and spears and ploughs. SXSWi should stop promoting the charlatans of vague hope, and start pushing forward those who really do grasp the human mind's reaction to all this wonderful shit.

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