SXSW 2014: The One About Privacy

March 21, 2014 at 11:12 am (3 Comments)

Kramer SXSW Cloud PlacardsTwo weekends ago SXSW Interactive graced our fair city, and as usual, I was there and even spoke a little.  Thankfully my house wasn’t robbed this time.

This year’s SXSW Interactive was heavy on privacy, internet security, and wresting our freedom back.  There weren’t keynotes from social players aiming to get you to join their thing, instead it was Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson telling you to learn and think for yourself.  It’s a refreshing change, and I’m eager to see what the tone of next year will be.

SXSW started really going on Friday this year, as the conference pushes up against it’s 5 day time window.  There wasn’t much in the morning on Friday.  Eric Schmidt, Jared Cohen, and Steven Levy had an interesting talk, mainly riffing on their book, The New Digital Age.  Eric and Jared are mainly concerned with technologies greater impacts, but there’s a certain large corporate mindset in what they say that clearly paints Google as a crusader for good.  You wouldn’t expect much else from the authors, but if you read it, keep that in the back of your mind.  There are other opinions.  One notable excerpt considering the Wikileaks presentation the next day were Eric Schmidt’s arguments against  transparency, which boil down to ‘Imagine what would happen if everything was transparent and open, nations wouldn’t be able to defend themselves from aggressors because they’d have to publish their attack plans before hand,’ which is just, well.  Ugh.

Show Your Work!Next up was Austin Kleon, who’s on tour supporting his new book, Show Your Work!  Austins keynote was the first one I really got something out of, my first big takeaway of the conference, which was that the concept of the lone creative visionary genius was patently false, and that we’re all products of the environment we’re in, and by showing your work in progress and getting involved and contributing, you can be a Scenius (hat tip to Brian Eno, there).  The people to avoid when you enter a creative community are the Vampires (people who feed off others energy to create their own work) and Human Spam (people who exist only to promote their thing, and are tone deaf to anything else).  Once SXSW pushes up video, Austin’s is a keynote worth checking out.

Julian Assange at SXSW 2014Saturday was Julian Assange, and you can watch the talk yourself here, but the long and short was that privacy is good, governments do bad things, people will act better if they know that what they’re doing will be made public later, and it’s impossible to do bad things on a large scale without creating a paper trail.  Julian is obviously a smart guy, but he isn’t a very dynamic speaker, and takes about three times as long to answer a question as he should.  He was in front of a green screen, and they use this constantly dripping wikileaks graphic that is incredibly distracting.  Pair that with his slow delivery, and it doesn’t make for a very exciting presentation.

Neil deGrasse Tyson at SXSW 2014There were exciting people at SXSW, though, and this years most exciting (to the point that he won Speaker of the Event), was Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Neil is a dynamic speaker, knows how to rally a crowd, and was there on the eve of the premier of his new series, Cosmos.  Takeaway from Neil is that science is cool, we keep learning new things, the universe is an amazing, mind-bogglingly-immense place and if you consider it in relation to our tiny planet and our tiny lives, it really puts everything in perspective the next time the kid is screaming and smearing blackberries on the table.

SXSW Gaming Expo

After Tyson’s talk we headed over to the SXSW Gaming Expo, which is a free event and a lot of fun for children of all ages.  They had a pretty big CCG pit, shown above, an area just for indie video games, and a big Gaming Tournament area where they were playing something I don’t keep up with anymore.

Escape the InternetSaturday night was the EFF-Austin SXSW party, In the future everything will work: Cyberpunk 2014.  It was a great time, with a cool Museum of Computer Culture exhibit of old machines and cutting-edge-way-back-when Hypercard decks.  Due to another commitment we weren’t able to stay late, but there was a panel discussion with Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling, Gareth Branwyn, William Barker and my buddy Jon Lebkowsky.  I’m bummed that I missed that, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

SXSW 2014 SessionSunday was my session, a Core Conversation titled A Cloud of One’s Own with me and Dave Sanford of the Austin Personal Cloud meetup group.  We had a really good turnout, and had a great, wide-ranging conversation on everything from Quantified Self analytics to Home Automation to crypto and authentication standards.  Dave prefaced the session with Life Simplified with Connected Devices, a piece of design fiction from the Connected Devices Laboratory at BYU.  It was written by Phil Windley’s son (Phil of Fuse connected car and Kynetx fame).

SXSW Bitcoin ATMAfter my talk we hit the trade show.  There was a bitcoin ATM this year, and NASA had a great booth with a 1/10th scale inflatable model of their new rocket that’s intended to take astronauts to Mars (this is Irma with a smaller model). There were some other interesting booths, including another good WordPress offering.  Irma and I grabbed some lunch, and while we were eating made our biggest missed connection of the whole conference, when only a sheet of glass separated us from Community’s own Troy Barnes, Donald Glover.  It was a very squee moment.  Donald was in town as Childish Gambino on his Deep Web Tour, and did a hackathon with WordPress.  We didn’t make it out to any of his events, which is a shame, but it was nice to have him here.

Edward Snowden at SXSWMonday started with Cory Doctorow talking with Barton Gellman about security and privacy and leaks.  It was arguably a more interesting talk than the actual Snowden interview that followed. The Snowden (video here), in a videocast with more technical challenges than Assange’s.  Assange was using Skype, though they lost audio.  Snowden was using Google Hangouts, but said he was bouncing through 7 proxies to get there.  The Snowden discussion was setup with two other speakers from the ACLU, so if he couldn’t make it, there would still be a talk, but this relegated him to a ‘voice on the phone’ role.  He’s very sharp, that Mr. Snowden, and knows how to make his point quickly.  It was an interesting contrast to Assange.  There weren’t any big bombshells from the Snowden interview, but it was an interesting moment in time.

After the Snowden talk I walked over to the Identity, Reputation, and Personal Clouds meetup session, as the organizers had been kind enough to come to ours.  We had a good discussion, and I ran into Chris Dancy, who I didn’t know before but seems to be the most connected man on the planet.  It was nice of him to come to the meetup, and we certainly had a rousing discussion.

Infinite Future PanelAfter the meetup was a great talk and interview with Adam Savage (I walked by someone I eventually recognized as Jamie Hyneman on the walk back to the Convention Center), I tried to get into the Infinite Future panel with Joi Ito, Bruce Sterling, Warren Ellis, and Daniel Suarez, but the room was tiny and way overbooked, and Irma couldn’t get in, so we headed back to the trade show instead, and then home.  I heard it was great, I hope there’s video or a recording somewhere.

Takei at SXSWTuesday was a quieter day, we showed up for George Takei’s interview, which was funny and interesting, though for someone who the US put into a detention camp, he has some interesting ideas on what Ed Snowden should do.  After that we bumped into our friend Carlos Ovalle, who’d been live tweeting the conference.  Carlos won my Personal Cloud SXSW Badge Contest the year before, and it was great to see the conference was good enough for him to come back.

After lunch it was Tim Ferriss talking about his new show The Tim Ferriss Experiment. He regaled us with stories of the brutal nature of shooting reality TV on a tight schedule, but the biggest takeaway I had was a quote from Jim Rohn on the law of averages, that: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” That really struck me, as I can see that pretty clearly, but it’s interesting to quantify.

Jon Lebkowsky Introduces Bruce Sterling at SXSW 2014The last session of SXSW is where Bruce Sterling gives his thoughts, and this year was no different.  My buddy Jon Lebkowsky introduced him (left).  Bruce’s talk was subdued this year, covering notable people who weren’t there (or were only there virtually), and who should be invited later.  It wasn’t a barn burner like it had been in the past, but I think Bruce’s thoughts were perhaps more with the things he is building and making, where he’s getting his hands dirty with real stuff.  It’s worth your time to track down some previous talks, though, because they’re great.

To close off, I will leave you with this, a photo of the traditional slice of Peanut Butter Mousse Pie that we had at Moonshine after SXSW wrapped up.  Moonshine and this pie is almost a tradition in itself at this point.

Moonshine Peanut Butter Mousse PieFollowing up on Austin’s idea of scenius and sharing your work, I’ve started a newsletter, Muniment.  I send it out every week or two, and preview new stuff that will end up on the blog, or put more context around interesting stuff I see.  You should sign up.

3 thoughts on “SXSW 2014: The One About Privacy

  1. cjovalle

    It was good running into you and Irma. ^_^

    I saw several of the same panels- Austin Kleon, Assange, Greenwald, Snowden, Tyson, and a few others. I was very impressed with the substance of SXSW this year.

    I thought Peter Singer from the Brookings Institute had some interesting things to say in his cyberwar panel- his views seemed to be a good deal more nuanced than I’ve seen elsewhere. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Schmidt. While I liked a lot of the main points of their talks, I found his and Gary Shapiro’s “deregulation” mantra off-putting. It’s great that Schmidt recognized wealth inequality as an issue, but I found it strange that he immediately followed those comments lauding practices that exacerbate wealth inequality. =P

    I was actually a bit surprised by Snowden’s popularity- I expected that a lot of people agree with what he did, but I wasn’t really prepared for the extent of his backing. It seemed pretty clear that the majority of the tech community is completely behind him. The NSA (and their recent TED response) haven’t really been all that effective in their explanations.

  2. Lindsey

    “One notable excerpt considering the Wikileaks presentation the next day were Eric Schmidt’s arguments against transparency, which boil down to ‘Imagine what would happen if everything was transparent and open, nations wouldn’t be able to defend themselves from aggressors because they’d have to publish their attack plans before hand,’ which is just, well. Ugh.”

    I think I know your thoughts here but I am not entirely clear from this response–to me this argument seems very specious, slippery slope alarmism more or less. Could you clarify a little more?

  3. Jeff Kramer Post author

    Eric and Jared were talking about transparency, and trying to poke holes in the argument that people like Julian Assange make that people in power don’t get away with large scale bad things when the documents finally get out, so we should have systems where everything the government does is open for public review. Any large scale action where there are multiple actors involved creates a paper trail, so if you expose that paper trail continuously to public scrutiny, you may still have bad actors, but society will be able to hold them to account.

    Eric and Jared said something like this: “So in the book we imagined a country called Wikistan, one of those liberal northern european countries, where their law was that everything the government did had to be released for public inspection first. But what happens if the country needs to negotiate a treaty, it has no bargaining position because it has to release all communications first. What happens if another country decides to attack it, it’ll have to release all its defensive and attack plans before hand, and it’ll have to release that it’s going to make an attack before it happens.”

    Their argument is an obvious straw man on the concept of transparency and how most people would like it implemented, probably even Assange himself. The issue we’re dealing with is a problem of default government secrecy, and secrecy as the default position to cover the government’s butt from embarrassment. That’s how you end up with 8 year lawsuits on the No-Fly program that covered up a simple government mistake. You could get rid of that just by having a set delay on everything, or a longer delay after planned actions (like treaty negotiations) take place. Some things, like lists of suspected terrorists or lists of foreign operatives or research and development don’t need to be public, but that’s maybe what, 1% of what the government classifies? It may be written better in the book, but if that’s their argument, it isn’t much of an argument at all.

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