Meet the Future!

The idea hit me when I was in the shower this morning. Then thinking about the idea? I had this realization: I should patent it!1!!1!

“Southby,” the way we say “SXSW,” represents the culture of our times, the gold rush of our era, the 21st Century World’s Fair. Light bulbs! (Twitter.) Electric marvel of AC –alternating current! (Foursquare.) It’s the rush of invention. The promise of something NEW, IMPROVED. It’s what the World Fair was to the rise of the Industrial Era. Progress!

So, back to my patent, I have this as my core idea, this notion, if you will or will not—but I’m not yet quite sure what my invention actually will be—but it’s a start. I can smell the riches, the independence, and the progress around the corner. It’s Southby as World’s Fair.

So Southby, like a World’s Fair, is full of invention. Full of Progress. In fact, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 presented many inventions by Nikola Tesla, the inventor of patents that made Westhinghouse a going concern versus General Electric. He also blew minds with his inventions that harnessed AC “alternating current,” over DC, “direct current.” He rose to prominence, fell to disgrace as the prototypical “Mad Scientist,” capturing lightning, and making, no kidding, ray guns. The rabbit ears you can control with your, um, mind (yes, mind) are something he no doubt would have loved. We saw these at Southby and filmed Theo Soares modelling on the Vine feed we made, #havasxsw, below.

In any case, Tesla’s reputation has posthumously been resuscitated by entrepreneurs. To emphasize his connection to Southby, Tesla’s crumbling lab was purchased for building a Museum in his honor, funded by an IndieGoGo campaign organized by keynote speaker, Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal fame. Elon Musk, who uses Tesla’s name for his company (Tesla Motors) and plans to send people to Mars was also a keynote speaker. Mad Science? And what about General Electric, whose Thomas Edison actually got into an invention battle with Westinghouse at the same 1893 World’s Fair? They had a Barrista Bot, a Brilliant Brunch, and What Makes a Maker. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of Invention.

We send people from our company because we have to be there, we have to represent. It’s “What’s Next” in the culture from technological invention, to music, to film. As of this year, Southby became more about stuff, more about products. Hardware as the new software, as some were saying. Southby you might say in some way became better than the Consumer Electronics Show because it has become so enmeshed in things we experience daily in our culture.

But unlike the World’s Fairs, every year there’s something new. We can’t wait ten years for the next World’s Exhibition. It has to be yearly. What will be the next Twitter? The next Foursquare? Last year’s “next social whatever” we don’t even remember today, as Anita Schillhorn van Veen pointed out at How To Havas this week. Highlig.ht? Forgotten—to remind you, I am talking about a product named “Highlight.” Samsung’s hastag for Southby? #thenextbigthing

But Samsung wasn’t the real Next Big Thing so much. Right now, this year, what can we pick from? It’s Makerbot and its home 3D scanner (great for garden gnomes and plastic rifles, evidently, as well as a perfect copy of your real knee to use as a replacement).

It’s…the Responsive Pool Table — “Open Pool”!

It’s the…um…silver ball that makes your hair stand on end if you touch it!

It’s some weird robot-ish device that rolls around with a talking head on it! (She’s live!)

Even last year waiting on line at Southby parties, you’d find yourself accosted by inventors, start-up people, practicing—or making?—their elevator pitch on anyone who would listen, talking uber-fast, looking for the one who will buy them out. Make them rich, yes, rich.

And this year, too, I was at a meet-up that included enterprise kinds of guys from AT&T, IBM and Microsoft when two guys with matching tee-shirts from a company called Talkingboot.com showed up. Go to their website? Nothing there. Like my idea in the shower! Express your interest and we’ll get back to you with a product!

It all reminds me of an old 70s film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with a story that takes place in the West during the start of industrialization, when the World’s Fairs were just beginning. Butch and Sundance were the hax0rs of their era, you see, robbing the modern invention, the train. In one scene, sitting from a balcony, the pair watched the sheriff of the town trying to form a posse to pursue them. Not only are the hax0rs right there in town watching, and chuckling, but what happens? A huckster jumps up on stage with a new invention: the Bicycle. “Ladies and gentlemen, meet the future!” Asked by the sheriff what he was doing, the huckster replies, “Well, you got the crowd together. That’s half my job, so I just thought I’d do a little selling.” The Facebook of the time. The Government trying to catch up.

Now the posse gathers themselves up for the sell. The first evening I was at Southby, my brother James, a scientist from AT&T said “C’mon, we’re going to the ‘Start-up Crawl.’”

Cut to? Packed office space probably about the size of 7 Common, at a place called, appropriately, the Capital Factory. (That’s “capital” as in money, kids. Moh-nay.) How many start-ups…20? More? People? Squeezed in. Line at the door. Lucky to be in. My brother attracting attention like a magnet with his badge that blares “AT&T.”

Maybe they’ll buy us! follows us around, an unsaid something breathlessly lingering on the cranberry-flavored vodka-infused air. Quickly chased by maybe they patented our idea already. D=

So when this morning in the shower when it came to me, that Southby is like the 21st Century evolution of the World’s Fair, I knew how much I need to Meet the Future! The Horse? Is dead!

And I’m not the only one. After our Southby presentation of findings at How To Havas, three people came to me and told me about their start-ups. They all sounded great! But how to get going…? Or the other thought: “I’m not looking for my next job, I’m looking for equity.”

The Most Interesting Men in the building now? Rui Pereira and Adam Lassy down in MadSci. Yes, they have a 3D printer, but that’s so last year. They have a Leap! And a developer’s SDK. And you can go down to the Lab and check it out. And please go.

So the question becomes, do you really want to be making the best, absolutely perfect, horse harnesses when your neighbor has an idea for this thing called a ‘steering wheel’ to drive that horseless buggy fad invention he bought the other day. And he has a Water Closet! Do you want to be the top candle-maker when people have this thing called the Light Bulb, and I don’t mean the metaphorical one that goes off over our heads when we get an idea.

We still use horse harnesses right now, today, yes, we do. But the horseless buggy long took over and now our inventions have to do with fixing all kinds of unintended consequences of such a revolutionary invention. Hurricane Sandy anyone? Wish I had a nice top-notch candle and a good horse then! But the truth is, you might see that advertising has a strong connection to, and possibly arose from, that same energy of Invention captured by the spirit of the vintage World’s Fairs. Posters really started to come into their own as a product of Industrialization, Mass Product/Mass Market, and the need to Mass Advertise as these inventions took root. World Fairs expressed that, but they were also a competition between nations. Today World’s Fairs are only about Nation Branding, about improving national image, and attracting investment through this sort of…advertising. The story has shifted from being one about “What’s Next” to an obligatory diorama of “Who We Are.”

But the real “who we are” is at Southby. Whatever else we can learn at Southby, one thing for sure it is how democratic invention itself has become. The process for making inventions is no longer just in the hands of the few geniuses. Now it’s anybody, it’s 45,000 people from all over the world in Austin Texas for a week. People smirk at “Mad Scientists” as something quaint instead of something scary because they themselves could be a Mad Scientist, cooking up the next great start-up in their home kitchens and getting it “out there” via their Facebook posse. As David Jones said in his Age of Damage Southby Talk, the Industrial Revolution (and, I’d add, its World Fairs) empowered companies; the Social Media Revolution empowers people. And people? They’re making stuff.

So we’ll keep going to Southby to learn, be inspired, to dream and tell ourselves get-rich quick stories. And hopefully we won’t say, as Butch Cassidy did, “The Future’s all yours, ya lousy bicycles!”

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