Beyond the plethora of conferences and the geek jokes and references that pepper the festival, there is a strong sense of community at SXSW. This means that each participant is often a contributor.

The world of SXSW is utopian. There remains, the belief that technology and the Web in particular, can change the world for the better. When reality confronts this belief, this causes severe introspection within the community.

Danah Boyd (activist and geek-assumed researcher at Microsoft Research, NYU, among other things) gave a lecture on the fear society development. In a world where the volume of information to which individuals are exposed continues to grow, so too does the battle for people’s attention. To win, the media, marketers and institutions have long used fear as a lever.

Fear is irrational and empathetic, and therefore the most effective way to generate attention (nothing new here, see the tabloid press or election campaigns). But, if social networks have strengthened the flow of information, they have also changed the paradigm: each emits as it receives. Therefore, the attention economy has shifted from institutions to individuals. And, each spreads the fear culture in order to obtain attention. Thus, the utopia of social networks (transparency as a means making each one voice heard) helped spread the fear culture and social control.

Introspection, even during the question and answer session of the conference, excited presenter Frank Abagnale. Frank’s exploits were depicted in the movie Catch Me If You Can, based on his best-selling book. In this session, he described his life, both during the time covered in his well-known story, as well as his life now. Since his escapades of youth, he worked with the FBI to fight against all financial fraud and particularly identity theft.

Obviously, the debate revolved around the possibility of reproducing his achievements today. His answer was definitive: “much easier”. The feelings in the room were mixed: on one hand the reassurance that technology does not threaten our freedom, disappointed, on the other hand, that it is powerless against crime.

It’s a good reminder of Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology: “Technology is Neither Good nor Bad, nor is it neutral.” Deal with it.

The French version of Henri Jeantet’s article, SXSW (2): Introspection, first appeared on Influencia.