What SXSW is really like
You wake in a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of Austin. The silent duvet of suburbia reminds you that your employer is reducing costs after a year of under-performance in the Yoga-for-kids app industry. The room’s air conditioning, too cold, hums its disappointment. You think to text your mother.
After a lukewarm shower, you pull another Yo!Go! branded t-shirt from its wrapping. The thin material smells of Korea and regret. You find your glasses on the floor (how’d they get there?), two perfect circles. You’d bought them in a small-town thrift store and they make you look like a pupil from a 1950s fee-paying school. You feel obliged to make a concession to both individuality and fashion if your dickhead line manager is to insist you wear a company t-shirt all day, every day, in the hope that you end up in the background of a live-stream. The only problem with the glasses is that they possess their original lenses, a prescription your 20/20 sight doesn’t require. That familiar headache returns as you put them on. The world becomes slightly fuzzy. But that’s not all bad — not in Texas.
At the front desk, you make like it’s the 1990s and ask the mousey receptionist to call you a cab. The guy laughs until he realises you’re being serious.
‘Are cabs fashionable now?’ he asks, too loudly, as he cradles a phone to his cheek. ‘Like vinyl?’
‘No,’ you reply. ‘I’ve got history with Uber.’
You tell him you’re headed downtown. BP are hosting a breakfast in a derelict library. Rumour has it that there are free pancakes.
Vegan hotdogs in a schoolbus the colour of mustard. And, within three minutes, the most attractive person you’ve ever met sits alongside you and distracts you from refreshing your Twitter stream. She’s so close, you can feel her skin radiating heat. Your chest contracts. Your cheeks flush. You brush supposed vegan hotdog from your whiskers.
‘Are you enjoying your free vegan hotdog, gent?’ she asks, eyes sparking like a diamond princess.
You grunt. Talking to strangers is not part of your skill-set. You’ve HR tests to prove it. And talking to attractive people is as alien to you as metaphysical poetry is to ants.
She said ‘gent’. She’s attractive enough to be ahead of the curve. You make a mental note to start calling people ‘gent’.
‘As you know, today’s vegan hotdogs have been provided by G4S, the world’s leading secure outsourcing group.’ An iPad Air 2 appears. ‘Would you mind answering a few questions about your attitude to private sector engagement with the prison system?’
‘Sure,’ you say.
‘Great,’ says the most attractive person you’ve ever met. ‘BTW, we had Questlove in earlier. Such a gent!’
‘I had to kill someone to get a ticket. Literally. Literally had to kill them. So make sure you ask a question or, at the very least, score an appearance on the official Periscope. With a t-shirt.’
It’s a symposium on what the second wave of feminism can teach the tech world about audience outreach, sponsored by Ford. Patti Smith and John Hodgman. Some guy from Silicon Valley, the TV show. Not the main guy.
You zone out. There’s no free food. No goodie bag.
You sit next to someone from Microsoft. You can’t see their ID badge, but can tell they’re from Microsoft by their haircut. It’s clumsy and dated. Instead of listening to the panel, you think about riding horses. Off to the horizon.
You never see any horses in Austin.
At the end of the panel’s conversation, you raise your hand. You are overcome by panic when a work experience guy appears with a microphone. Your growing self-loathing is too slow to strangle the words that come farting from your mouth –
‘I’d like to ask Patti if yoga has played a role in her life as a woman and, in particular, yoga for kids because at Yo!Go! we’ve designed an app …’
John Hodgman clears his throat as the microphone is pulled from your mouth.
‘I like yoga,’ says Patti Smith.
‘I like kids,’ says the guy from Silicon Valley.
The room laughs. The guy from Microsoft stares at you. You don’t meet his eyes, you keep your face forward, rictus grin steady for the unseen camera that is no doubt documenting all this.
Budweiser are hosting an event. You show your ID to two kids from UT and are given two tokens to exchange for two pints of Bud’s new line of caffeine-infused zero-calorie IPA. The space, a marquee in the playground of an infant school, is empty. Elsewhere, Grimes is delivering a secret DJ set for Uber.
But you’ve got history with Uber.
As you’re finishing your second beer, an Australian woman appears with an acoustic guitar and sings songs about rising house prices and climate change. A man without a beard sidles alongside you.
‘She’s no Grimes,’ he says.
You check his ID. He’s from Yahoo. You make your excuses and leave.
The driver of the minicab back to the hotel moans about Uber in broken English and charges you three times the fare you’d paid to come into town. He doesn’t drop you at the Holiday Inn because of a recent misunderstanding with the night manager supposedly. Instead, you’re forced to walk an avenue of detached suburban houses that belong to the pages of a prospectus for an American Dream past its ‘best by’ date. A man walking a pitbull eyeballs your t-shirt as you pass.
In your hotel room, which remains true to the temperature of Finland, you WhatsApp your line manager.
‘Another day over. Asked Patti Smith a yoga question. Have a headache. Goodnight, gent.’
You fall asleep with a miniature Jack Daniels, empty. The tiny bottle lies in the hollow of your chest. As your consciousness flickers, you think of the most attractive person you’ve ever met. Would the vegan hotdog bus be there tomorrow? What might she be doing now? Anything. The room closes around you. Anything.
Still, tomorrow The New Yorker, in partnership with HBO, are hosting a thinktank chaired by Jason Bateman, about the future of VR.
That’s something to look forward to.