Texas Music Festival Also a Hotbed of Technology Optimism

It's not been so long since the annual festival - which is known as a launching pad for all manner of technology enterprises, as well as being a must-see spot for breakout new music acts in America - was weighed down by worries about privacy.

by Christian Fahrenbach, dpa / March 25, 2015

(Tribune News Service) -- Between the cutting-edge music shows and film debuts, there was something unexpected in the air at the recent South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas - optimism about the future of the internet and technology.

It's not been so long since the annual festival - which is known as a launching pad for all manner of technology enterprises, as well as being a must-see spot for breakout new music acts in America - was weighed down by worries about privacy.

The all-pervasive reach of government snoopers revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, had everybody worried. But those days seem long gone now.

Look no further than a seminar entitled Screw Privacy, Just Give Me Value for My Data to see why. Speaking before a group, a woman extolled the fact that she can pay less for health insurance because it's public knowledge that she doesn't smoke and exercises regularly.

Many members of the audience nodded in agreement as they heard about the hope some see in a feature where data is sucked up by watches and other wearable devices and then shared.

It was only one of more than 1,100 events about technology at the 10-day South by Southwest event. Although it's better known for its music, tens of thousands still journeyed to Austin for the technology discussions that kicked off before the first note was played.

The festival has become an established meeting place for the technology world. It's where Twitter got its start.

Now other internet hopefuls trek to this city, seen as a hot spot of US alternative lifestyles, in the hope of getting enough people on board their own projects, each believing he or she has come up with the new must-follow trend.

For many who gathered in this city, there wasn't much concern in evidence about ever-more-aggressive data gathering. Snowden was barely an afterthought here, although he did appear in a videoconference with some industry leaders.

Mostly, people were just very excited about new technology just down the road.

Some were looking at the app Meerkat, which puts live video feeds online. Others were focused on the potential of virtual reality.

Others still came eager to learn more about the recipe for success behind colourful news and entertainment website Buzzfeed.

When they were done for each day, most participants headed to a barbecue stand, quaffed a local beer and discussed the industry.

Most are convinced there's a technological cure for most problems out there.

"There is a complete absence of doubt," commented German entrepreneur Marcus von Jordan.

He notes that Americans' default status of optimism, their sense of entrepreneurship and the easy networking opportunities make the festival especially popular among Germans, who have nothing comparable at home.

To prove the point, there were about a dozen young hopefuls sharing their ideas at something called the German Startup Engine. There was even a Deutsches Haus where even more Germans could present their plans.

The hopes spawned by the festival are always prompting people to bring their business ideas to Austin. Services like Airbnb (renting out private rooms to vacationers) and Lyft and Uber (taxi rental services) reported strong business during the conference.

Even better, residents seem to love the festival, especially the economic boom it provides in terms of rooms rented and opportunities to get a few days of work providing an informal taxi service.

Airbnb alone saw 6,000 visitors find lodging in Austin during the festival, said company head Brian Chesky on Twitter.

"It's great that there are now apps like Airbnb and Lyft," noted one woman earning some money as a driver during the festival. Win-win: Visitors get home quicker and she earns some extra money.

The optimism is unbounded.

©2015 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC