Solving the problem of social discovery, lessons from SxSW

The web people are better dressed than the music people this year, futurist Bruce Sterling remarked in his SxSW closing remarks.

Not just better dressed but wealthier, hungrier, more optimistic, I thought.

Austin, Texas is where thousands of representatives and enthusiasts of technology, film and music gather every year to talk about their craft and make a dent in the global tequila supply. I attended in 2012 for the second time and these are the trends that I think are worth reporting on.

A new generation of social, local, and mobile apps — SoLoMo, for short — are trying to solve the problem of social discovery. Not only will they alert you when friends are nearby, but they’ll also tell you about strangers in your vicinity, and match you to those with similar interests. As creepy as it sounds, I had a few good interactions using one of these apps, although I never met face to face with the people I’d talked to. That might be a bad sign. Check out Glancee, Highlight, Banjo or Sonar to get a taste of the SoLoMo phenomenon. The granddaddy of them all is of course an app called Grindr, which helps guys find other guys looking for a particular sort of good time.

One of the persistent complaints against technology is that it transfixes us to screens. Ambient computing, another hot SxSW topic, is a solution to this. The idea is that data should come to us only when it’s needed. “Cyborg anthropologist” Amber Case delivered a keynote speech in which she explained how “invisible buttons” could use location, rather than sight and touch, to activate software. Imagine getting woken up by your phone when your local bus is 30 minutes away from the closest bus stop… nice, isn’t it? Case has launched a mobile location protocol called Geoloqi which will help developers do that and more.

Even more interesting is the advance of 3D printing into more and more homes. “Makers”, as the expanding clan of DIY-manufacturers is called, use 3D printers to cheaply manufacture objects that were previously only possible on the assembly line. Already, The Pirate Bay (of illegal filesharing fame) has launched a “physibles” section where users can download printable designs for physical objects. Others say the home industrial revolution is further off than we think. Nonetheless, this scene exists and it smells like the future.

Elsewhere, the work place is being decentralised. Zappos, as famous for its HR policies as it is for shoes, is paying for its workers to spend time in external co-working spaces. The idea is that mixing with a different crowd is good for creativity. And ever worried about how to distribute those company bonuses? Don’t worry, neither have I. But Linden Labs, the company responsible for (the somewhat passé) virtual world Second Life has a great way to do it. It assigns an equal amount of cash to every worker in the company, who must then give all of it away anonymously to their peers within 24 hours. They’ve studied the historical distribution of these bonuses and found them to be surprisingly fair. “Collective intelligence” is the ally of the employer of the future, it seems.

More on doing business: the “lean startup” and “customer development” methodologies championed by Eric Ries and Steve Blank have a huge following among the SxSW crowd. An adoring audience hooted and cheered them on as they told entrepeneurs everywhere to “stop wasting everybody’s time”. The lean startup method hinges on something called “validated learning”, which is nothing more than testing your hypotheses out in the field, putting your product in the hands of customers early and studiously measuring the results. Ries’ book The Lean Startup was published in September, but it flew off the shelf and into my arms this week and already I feel like I’m learning some very valuable stuff.

The general consensus is that education is in trouble. Formal education was created for an industrial society which has been supplanted by a very different digital economy. As the value proposition of universities is being questioned (and almost certainly eroded in terms of sheer supply & demand of degrees), alternatives are springing up all over. Khan Academy’s educational videos have become essential online viewing while Codecademy is teaching laymen to code in terms they can understand. Even some of the universities are dipping their toes into this future with open online courses such as that of MIT. UnCollege is Dale Stephens’ attempt to raise awareness of such alternatives and create a community for “unschoolers”, people who learn independently.

This being a technology conference, discussions often veered into the realm of the sci-fi, strange talk of cyborgs and the Singularity. When you think about it, though, the melding of man and machine has already begun. Humans are outsourcing their memories and computational power to the superior processing power of the cloud. I use iTunes, therefore I am a cyborg, basically. Prolific inventor Raymond Kurzweil predicts that we are seventeen years away from the first computer to pass the Turing test, meaning one that is indistinguishable from a human in communication. At that point, computers could considered to be sentient beings.

But will they use Facebook?

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