Sometime around the third day of SXSW Interactive, I started forgetting exactly why I'd come. The Austin-based event I'd signed up for had been advertised as a tech conference, but when I arrived, I found it was just an all-purpose capitalist carnival – a shrieking, neon-lit billboard for every kind of conceivable product or service.
Pennzoil and American Express were there, as was Kleenex, which had rented a house-sized exhibit to show off its Cottonelle toilet paper to the estimated 30,000 techies in attendance. None of these are tech companies, per se. But it may not matter – because what really happens at SXSW these days, amid the barbecue and free booze, is a clumsy appropriation of the tech world's rhetoric by the corporate marketing complex. Hacker culture, which was once rooted in Silicon Valley's countercultural history, is now being used by Fortune 500 corporations to sell stuff to people.
There are three main reasons why a non-tech company would go to a tech conference like SXSW. The first is if the company already has important partnerships with tech companies – like Twitter's tie-up with American Express. Schmoozing with start-ups is part of a lot of corporate business development strategies these days, and there are few better places to do it than in Austin. The second reason to go is if a large, non-tech company believes it's really a tech company in disguise. These companies have bought the "software is eating the world" line – they believe that, as the Wall Street Journal put it, "tech is at the center of the new economy." And they want to learn what's new in tech, so they can go home and apply it to their own businesses, whether that means 3-D printing Oreos or using analytics tools to sell more motor oil.
The third reason is what you might call the cool-kid motive. These days, large corporations want to learn about tech, and spend time around producers of tech, because they know that tech is the lingua franca of youth these days.
It just so happens that the tech industry – young, educated, coastal, high-income – consists of the same demographic that is most coveted by advertisers. And one of the reasons Silicon Valley has become such bait for marketers is because the things hacker culture represents in the public imagination – idealism, rebellion, disruption – are the same traits they want to associate with their brands. This is why you get Subway serving up "eatovations," and the U.S. Postal Service advertising its "interactive medium" in a trade-floor exhibit. The more tech rhetoric you can co-opt, the closer you are to winning the future.
In his book The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank writes about exactly this kind of cultural appropriation. It dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, he writes, when companies like Volvo and Camel cigarettes seized on the tropes of hippie culture to market their products to young people. All of a sudden, TV and radio were filled with images of happy, rebellious young people, gleefully sticking it to The Man by smoking Camels rather than Marlboros and driving Swedish cars instead of Chevrolets.
I had Frank's book in mind on Sunday night, when I went to a SXSW party hosted by a venture capital firm. The party was, for lack of a better word, cool – a bunch of attractive young people, drinking expensive booze and dancing passably to Top 40 songs. It seemed strange to me at first – that a conference that had once served as a home to misfits and outcasts ("just nerds," as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone put it) had become a place for hip young people to congregate and consume mass-market goods. But this is how it's always worked. Once a countercultural movement becomes sexy, the marketers move in. SXSW is a corporate carnival because tech culture is squarely in the mainstream now. The brands have arrived, and they're wearing hoodies.