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March 18, 2002 | (Austin, Texas) This year's South by Southwest Interactive conference was lean and mean - attended mainly by the core group of edgy 'net whackadistas, the conference had an interesting vibe, like "Wow, glad the goddam dotcom splurge is over, let's get back to what we were doin'…" And what we were doin' had real depth, it was way more compelling than ecommerce or net.publishing, the kinds of projects MBAs brought to the table when they started calling the Internet an 'industry' and creating the concept of the IPO casino. Before all that stuff happened we were thinking about open and free paradigms for software development, technologies for community, new and better ways to tell our stories. We were re-inventing ourselves as cyborgs, humans enhanced by accelerated technologies, looking for ways to nurture each other and share ideas over faster, increasingly accessible networks. And though many were all a little tired, a little disoriented, a little uncertain about where they were going, there was no question that the crowd at this year's SXSW was still committed to Internet technology and the web. Sadder, wiser, more grounded, but still eager to build.

wireless access at SXSW

Build what?

Embedded Linux in task-specific devices that are more flexible and scalable (single-use devices can have multiple uses - e.g. a clock that also measures a room's temperature and moisture levels and "tells" the air conditioning system what it needs to do. Games that are actually sophisticated interactive narratives offering diverse perspectives and plot paths. Activist networks that are increasingly sophisticated in their responses on issues and events. Local virtual communities that pull 'hoods together in intriguing ways. New ways to think about intellectual property and innovation. New structures for activist networks that change the face of politics…

We're still exploding, y'see. It's not about money now, but it was not about money a decade ago, when the Internet became more than an r&d network, when we first realized that we could have ubiquitous connectivity someday, and we were dazzled by visions, both utopian and dystopian, of possible futures, none of which involved the IPO casino. And now that the casino's burned down, we can imagine again, and SXSW Interactive is one great incubator for our dreams.

simplicity in web design panel

I knew this when a bunch of us wandered onto the balcony after a day of panels and passed a digital video cam around as we talked about art and scarcity in the information age. I knew it when I saw my compadres reading their mail and feeding their blogs over the ad hoc 802.11 network Cory Doctorow pulled together inside the convention center. I knew this as a sat in a circle with a bunch of bloggers who were thinking how to take their community impulse offline in their own neighborhoods.

Conclusion: Something's happening, it has real force, and part of that force depends on the connections we make, year after year, at SXSW Interactive in Austin. "Internet industry"? Hmmm… we might get fooled again, but it won't be easy.

Jon Lebkowsky has been soaking in Internet culture and community for the last decade-plus. He's served as community host/moderator for the WELL, Electric Minds, and HotWired. He has written technoculture articles and rants for Wired Magazine, Whole Earth Review, The Austin Chronicle, 21C, Factsheet Five, Mondo 2000, Mindjack and other publications, and was the "consciousness" sub-domain editor of The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog. As co-founder and former CEO of FringeWare, Inc., he was a pioneer in electronic commerce and its relationship to online community. An Internet activist, he was actively involved in initiatives of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Global Internet Liberty Campaign. . He was twice President of EFF-Austin, and is a member of The Internet Society, the Association for Computing Machinery, and the Project Management Institute. Jon recently served as Online Community Director for and Web Technology Director for Jon is co-founder and CEO of Austin-based Polycot Consulting L.L.C.

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Were you at SXSW this year? What were your impressions?

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