Drones, 3D Printers, and the New Cyberpunk at SXSW
Walking through the SXSW crowds in downtown Austin this past Saturday, I had this brief, morbid thought about how much damage someone could do to a large group of people there, if they so chose. It seemed inevitable that eventually something bad would happen, and a few days later, it came in the form of a cowardly drunk driver who decided to plow through crowds of people rather than deal with the police. So now, instead of a drunk driving conviction, he's going to go to jail for murder.
You can't fix stupid.
I wonder how much this tragedy is going to affect the usual party atmosphere at SXSW. For one week, Austin, Texas is transformed into a mix of New Orleans and Los Angeles. It's amazing how all those entertainment billboards that are so ubiquitous in Los Angeles suddenly pop up here in Austin when the film industry comes to town. I never quite figured out the purpose of them in Los Angeles - after all, why do film industry people feel the need to advertise their own television products to themselves? But that's what Hollywood likes to do.
(The show to be pushed more than any other, it seems, is some morbid TV series from Showtime called "Penny Dreadful," which is being advertised on creepy, blood orange signs gracing Austin's buses. I cannot help but think what it is about our society that such dark matter is so attractive these days, though I confess, I do enjoy a good horror story once in a while.)
Generally speaking, if you are someone who actually lives in Austin (as I do), SXSW is something to mostly avoid, except for those times you might feel ready to brave the unwashed masses (and by unwashed, I mean literally unwashed) to go to some sort of sponsored soiree that involves free food and drink. (And on Saturday, this involved two separate events coincidentally offering free BBQ sliders.)
From my brief foray into the SXSW frenzy, it's clear that - barring a total breakdown in our energy production - the next generations are likely going to embrace becoming cyborgs. At the "Create" event, which showcased 3D printers and creepy animalistic robots, an enthusiastic group was busy looking for new ways to utilize technologies for all sorts of applications - though from the looks of it, right now that consists of cheap plastic toys spawned from the new 3D printers.
It's clear that a good portion of the future drone market is going to be geeks trying to find ways to have Cheetos airlifted to them from the kitchen - because they will be too busy playing games hooked up to their virtual reality console to get up off the couch.
To them, drones, walking robots, and anything mechanized is a toy. It's exciting and fun to them. I am not sure how much they are thinking about the other ramifications of these technological wonders. (Indeed, some woman was saying, I don't remember who, that kids were really into building electronic toys now, and some of them come with circuits that snap together magnetically.)
Speaking of virtual reality - it has finally escaped the 1990s and re-appeared in the form of working game systems. Seeing a little girl of about 6 or 7 with her head strapped in a machine was a bit disturbing. A projector showed us what she was viewing inside her VR goggles - a classroom taught by a gliding porpoise with a mortar board hat on his head.
Virtual reality was such a hot topic in the 90s - and its sleazy counterpart, VR sex. The cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000 seemed to revel in spreads that showed cybersex partners wearing all sorts of odd-looking gear ("wetwear") designed to provide pleasure sent over the "information superhighway." Then for some strange reason, virtual reality went the way of movies like Johnny Mnemonic - Keanu Reeves waving his hands around to navigate 3D cyberspace was no longer cool - we had a real "World Wide Web" to explore. Funny, the techno hand-waving has come back - I just saw a bunch of it in the recent movie "Enders Game."
(Fun fact: I contributed to a book written by the editors of Mondo 2000 called How to Mutate and Take Over the World. I'm not even sure I got paid for it.)
If you really want to see a classic, bad cyberpunk movie, check out 1995's "Hackers," which has a young Angelina Jolie inexplicably fantasizing about the leading man wearing a kinky red vinyl outfit. Oh, and don't forget your rollerskates while you are jamming to Prodigy!
If at this point, you've realized that the history of modern tech has been filled with its share of "douchebags," then SXSW's emphasis on tech glitz and fake glamor should not surprise you.
"Douchebaggery" is a term often applied to the trendiness of SXSW. You won't find many bear-minded gold bugs there, or dour-faced doom and gloomers, unless you count the open carry march hastily organized by Alex Jones and InfoWars in response to anti-gun advocates crowing about how they have used bots to block pro-gun memes on Facebook.
The douchebaggery extends to the "maker" crowd, where, at the one 3D printing panel I attended, an older, brash blonde claimed that in the future, plastic surgeons will use 3D printing to create not just new breasts, but new butts, for the women of low self-esteem in the world. While she was initially selling us on her plan to provide nipple replacement for women with mastectomies, she was definitely seeing dollar signs here.
I wanted to ask her, "Why not stop there? Why not just make an entire designer baby in your 3D printer?"
If she could make money printing babies, I'm sure she'd do it.
Not everyone there is driven by greed - some, by more basic human needs. Would you eat food from a Star Trek replicator if you had a chance? I would, and so I was a bit more excited about the very passionate Indian guy who explained how he'd been able to make pizza with his 3D printer. Apparently, the tough part is not the cheese or tomato sauce, but the dough. Who would have thought!
His passion derived from an idealistic vision to feed the world's hungry using 3D printers. He said his biggest barrier would be dealing with people who are against processed food. I don't doubt it.
Another panelist had already built up a nice little boutique business selling custom 3D printed chocolates. Between plastic surgery, food, and chocolate, the 3D printing business is clearly getting a lock on a certain female demographic.
If custom chocolate and manufactured nipples are not your thing, then perhaps you might be interested in an 80,000 volt taser drone:
Alex Jones has been all over this new drone as part of the growing police state, but I also had to look at the other side of things. The drone is being marketed as a possible home security device. Advocates for the Second Amendment are always talking about guns as self-defense. So wouldn't having your own "protector drone" be part of your Second Amendment rights?
What if the people had their own army of home-made drones to battle an encroaching police state?
Clearly, I've watched too many sci-fi movies. But I can think of one practical use for a small home drone that I would buy in a heartbeat - a bug zapper. (Nothing like a wasp flying into your living room when you are tired and exhausted from a bad cold - which had me screaming into my office recently and calling a man to come and kill the darn thing for me. Yes, that's right. When it comes to big flying stinging insects, I want a man to help me with it and I am not ashamed to say so!)
So, on behalf of women, I would like to apologize as we are probably going to be the ones buying the 3D food machines, home drones, and VR goggles for our kids.
What a brave new world we are heading into.