Dave Snowden


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After yesterday’s drama the final arrival into Austin last night went reasonably smoothly (aside from delays due to Airforce One protocols as the President had been opening SXSW) and a short drive got me installed and promptly asleep some 12 miles out of the centre. My first time at SXSW and I hadn’t realised just how big a thing it is until I tried to book flights and a hotel. The former were limited and anything in the centre was $1,500 a night by the time I got round to booking. I headed in early to ensure easy parking and to make a breakfast meeting with a Singapore Government group (amazing where you end up meeting people). Midday I had a brief talk to a group of US Mayors about citizen journalism and complexity which resulted in an invitation to an evening party which I had to decline, with the travel this week I needed to sleep something which happened within five minutes of getting back to the room late afternoon.

Now SXSW is a major festival, we got the story with the speaker after me at the Mayor’s event. It started as a music event in adverse circumstances. The originators spent some time trying to get buy in from the various night clubs and were finally given the one week where no one made any money, namely spring break. Given the age of the volunteers the net result after a few decades has been a reverse with Austin becoming a spring break destination. The interactive aspect is now a major part of the overall festival and while it was subsidised by the film & music sessions in the early days, now funds the event as a whole.

My problem here is that I really was not up to evening events given that tomorrow night I start a double set of red eye flightsand an eight hour time shift. As a speaker I had a gold pass so I could go to anything but hunting around I couldn’t find many events and the couple I did make were impersonal. Huge halls and either a speaker or a panel on the stage with lineups for the mike to ask a question. The contrast with my main festival every year was extreme. At HTLGI we are talking smaller events with a real issue as to what to go to in each session. The smallness of the venues means there is an intimacy between the speakers and the audience. Interestingly both events combine the arts with wider issues, but HTLGI covers the whole of science and the humanities rather than being tech (and therefore sponsorship) focused. The book festival which parallels HTLGI is more like SXSW, bigger halls more celebrities, more lines and less intimacy. You feel that SXSW could do with a fringe event, drawing on the intellectual richness of Austin. Rather like the old Edinburgh Fringe before that too became a institution. The bigger events tend to be celebrity rather than content focused.

I suspect a lot of the smaller evening venues at SXSW has some of that intimacy, but HTLGI has it at a level of insight and understanding and is probably the nearest thing I have found in the world to a true trans-disciplinary event. Of course it also lasts ten days and is now a firm picture in my calendar and critical for me. Max used to be a major source of stimulation and reading and I have found no one to be his match since as a polymath generous with time and ideas. HTLGI is a good substitute and last year gave me epigenetic and constructor theory inputs which have been major elements of my work this year. More on one aspect of that tomorrow.