Some years are sunny at South By Southwest, making Austin a lovely place in which its denizens roll from panel to party to silly marketing gimmick as if on some kind of nerdy springtime frolic.
Not so 2014, where it rained for the entire weekend during the interactive part of the annual festival, drenching the hipster holiday and adding a more somber and misty mood to the proceedings.
So too did this year lack the sunny emergence of one great app that dazzled the place, as one largely has in past years, with nothing really taking off and little to ooh and ahh over. Thus, the olden days of Twitter and Foursquare exploding onto the scene seem far distant and even the much humbler GroupMe conflagration that came later would feel like a rager right now.
Instead, perhaps appropriately, the digital landscape this year was bracketed by two of the men who have introduced a more sinister edge to the perpetually gee-whiz wow of the Internet.
That would be WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the twin harbingers of digital doom who have been showing the world — as Joan Didion once wrote of the Santa Ana winds of California — just how close to the edge we really are when it comes to our online privacy.
“There has been a military occupation of Internet space,” intoned Assange via remote video from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, about pervasive government surveillance.
And even more menacing and, well, very true: “The ability to surveil everyone on the planet is almost there and, arguably, will be there in the next couple of years.”
Snowden — who will be speaking via video too, but from Russia — is scheduled for later today. He will doubtlessly sound the very same kind of dire warnings, backed up by the treasure trove of secret documents he collected as a government contractor that make it abundantly evident that the Internet has not been used just for fun and games.
Let’s be clear — despite the rough slap of reality, SXSW still tends toward the kooky and the party, including such things as: The always-packed bar of the Driskill Hotel, where artisanal beer is enjoyed among another-era cowboy art; pedicabs tricked out with a “Game of Thrones” seat, so you could get your King Joffrey on; a bunch of people decked out in various kooky pink costumes and lying on a fluffy pink rug in the middle of party-hearty 6th Street in some kind of inexplicable street-art marketing for the ride-sharing service Lyft; or a house fixed up to look like the Bates Motel from “Psycho,” for reasons that are still unclear to me.
It’s still a world of dating apps, karaoke apps, apps flacked by Shaquille O’Neal and a golden appearance by geek celeb crush Kristen Bell at the world premiere of the Kickstarter-funded movie of her cult TV hit “Veronica Mars” — $5.7 million raised from 92,000 fans.
“It’s so humbling to know that the reason we’re here is because of our Kickstarter friends,” Bell told the crowd. “We don’t take that lightly that you guys are the reason this movie got made.”
Like the government, but much more entertainingly, the fictional former teenage detective, now all grown up, is apparently still sneaking around spying too.
In case you need to see proof of that, here are the first two minutes of the new movie:
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