Voices: A more somber South by Southwest this year

AUSTIN -- When I half-jokingly wrote a USA TODAY column about South by Southwest losing its groove a few days ago, my friend Dale, a proud Texan, gave me grief for "grumping" about a tech show near and dear to my geeky heart.

Three days in, I'm sad to report the buzz about a show that helped launch Twitter and Foursquare is amiss this year.

Thinner crowds, an anti-robot protest and the annual invasion of corporate participants — this year it's Visa, McDonald's and Mazda — have set a more sober tone.

"I'm just not feeling it," social media expert Brian Solis said at a late-night gathering Friday.

"Let's put people before machines," said Adam Mason, 23, who led an anti-robots demonstration on Friday, underscoring a debate in the scientific community. Tesla founder Elon Musk has donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute because of his fears about smart robots. Stephen Hawking has warned of the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI).

The protest and ongoing corporate-ization have been undercurrents to a more sedate gathering.

To the uninitiated, SXSW is a confluence of tech ideas, music acts and film showings, where nerds get a chance to rub shoulders with movie stars and music legends. It's grown dramatically over the past few years, putting a strain on Austin but also pumping the local economy.

What used to be a city brimming with musicians, food trucks and hippie sentiment is slowly being overridden with building cranes, traffic snarls and shiny new high rises.

In south Austin, the skyline is cluttered with condominium construction sites, a paean to rampant growth. J.W. Marriott, which opened in mid-February, is the city's largest hotel, with 1,000 rooms. Next year, when the 1,200-room Fairmont opens, it will be the second largest. A city institution, the Lustre Pearl bar, was forced to relocate because of construction.

The cosmopolitan-ization of once-quaint Austin, which gets an estimated 120 to 150 new residents each day, is an unpleasant reminder of a certain city (OK, Dallas) about 200 miles north.

Austin increasingly has had a wary relationship with a show that most everyone acknowledges has gotten too big, too fast. Sixth Street is choked with drunken revelers, stoned students and curious onlookers.

But things sobered up dramatically this year, perhaps a hangover from last year, when a driver plowed into a crowd, killing four people and injuring nearly two dozen.

To be fair, this year's show boasts the likes of Charles Barkley, Ryan Gosling, Snoop Dogg and NFL stars Colin Kaepernick and Larry Fitzgerald. John Legend put on a private show. For a second straight year, Jimmy Kimmel is doing shows from Austin.

Few superstar tech execs were sighted, however, despite the very visible presence of Yahoo and Samsung Electronics.

Try as they might, the haters have a hard time dissuading the unflinching true believers of SXSW, who eagerly converge on this college town (University of Texas) studded with colorful characters and a vibrant music scene.

Indeed, entrepreneurs from New Orleans and other cities have flirted with the idea of their own SXSW-like festival.

SXSW is "an economic and cultural boon to the city," Austin Mayor Steven Adler says. But he acknowledges its growth — as well as major events such as Formula 1 and the recently completed Austin Marathon — brings challenges in addition to revenue and prestige.

The city is young, with an average household age of 31.9 years, and fairly affluent: median income is $52,400 a year.

"Questions about city growth go beyond South By," he says. "There is a special spirit and soul to this city, which attracts like-minded people."

Yeah, Austin is still cool —- maybe more so than the increasingly buttoned-down SXSW.

Jon Swartz is USA TODAY's San Francisco bureau chief


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