For the first time in years, I spent 72 hours without Internet or cell phone reception. While I didn’t experience any life-altering epiphanies that some claim comes from a digital detox, I now enjoy a handful of very meaningful relationships that never would have existed, with the constant temptation for shallow interactions with dozens of peoples’ avatars, thousands of miles away. I learned that when you’re stuck with people, you’re forced to find meaning in conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have seemed more entertaining than YouTube at the time.
I don’t buy the snake oil that cutting ourselves off from the net makes us better thinkers; access to the world’s information has made me more informed and creative. But, the Internet can’t give you friendship, nor can it help you discover ideas that people have never told anyone about.
Last week, I had the fortune of testing the “never detox alone” hypothesis at two back-to-back business conferences held in the mountains. The first, Summit Outside, was an invite-only Burning Man-like gathering of 800 young social entrepreneurs in the Utah Mountains. Completely cut off from the Internet, attendees slept in tents, could go horseback riding, dance to A-list DJ’s under a full moon, or attend spirituality-themed talks.
I left Summit Outside with more friends and business ideas than I have at any other conference-some from people I’d know for years, but thought I didn’t even like very much. On the flip side, CEOs and investors that normally would have avoided a tech journalist like the plague, were forced into uncomfortable conversations that unexpectedly led to great ideas.
The Internet has spoiled us; at the slightest hint of boredom or unpleasantness, we escape to the Internet. Modern life is a constant elevator pitch. Potential friends and projects that don’t enjoy a good first impression get tossed out.
Indeed, Summit Series itself has built a thriving company on top of the theory that the best business relationships start out as friendships. Since 2008, Summit Series has held a pricey annual conference of socially oriented entrepreneurs. Held on a cruise ship, at a ski resort, and in a makeshift camping mountain village, the Summit conferences intermix crazy-fun activities, such as shark tagging in the Caribbean, with A-list speakers, from the likes of Richard Branson and Bill Clinton. Now, Summit has raised $40 million to purchase a mountain and build permit home in Eden, Utah for grand pursuits.
Of course, I’m fully aware that pricey, quasi-exclusive networking conferences aren’t for everyone. There have been plenty of criticism of them over the years. I understand the sense of irony of rich people talking about saving the world, while they party in ostentatious digs. And, of having more bark than bite when it comes to actually making an impact on the world. The conferences appeal to wide-eyed idealists.
That said, Summit Outside taught me that the world won’t come crashing down If I’m off the grid for a weekend. Like many people feeling the digital overload, I’m still planning my vacation from electronics. But, now I know I shouldn’t detox alone. I’m going to convene a camping trip-at least half from people I don’t know and never would have thought to hang out with. I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of experience and randomness.
When you get the smartest people in technology to distill a year’s worth of knowledge into hour-long talks and minute-long chats, the less informed masses are brought up to speed. Rather than wait for the past to proliferate, SXSW lets the crowd grasp today so tech’s leaders can focus on tomorrow.
Not everyone can see the future, and that’s okay. Tech needs soldiers — growth hackers, designers, developers, and even PR who work tirelessly to push their companies forward. These people gain from what SXSW gives.
Without it, knowledge of new models and best practices could stay bottled up in select circles of tech’s elite. That retards innovation. If this knowledge is not dispensed, those with the crystal balls spend their days dragging everyone along, instead of leading the charge.
It’s like math. The truly creative and fun part is at the edges. You have to know the basics before you can start to experiment. SXSW raises the bar for the common denominator. It helps us to answer and therefore stop asking some of the big questions about where the industry is going and what works.
If you’re going to SXSW to gain new users, you’re missing a lot of the point. As the conference has grown, the influence of the average attendees has dropped. And anyways, scoring ten thousand downloads through expensive stunts won’t make you win any more. Yes, SXSW is marketers marketing to marketers and zombified cross-town walks staring at your phone on the way to the next brand money bonfire. But if you come to SXSW, you should be coming to learn.
That doesn’t mean all the education happens in the convention hall. It’s also in the beer line, on a rickshaw, or in a hotel lobby. That’s because SXSW’s impart that the the default conversation should be about what’s new. Small talk is what’s the latest app you fell in love with, or the startup you’re inspired by.
People say SXSW is over. but really its audience has just changed. While it’s still about two-way sharing of information, it’s maturing into a broadcast platform that ensures insights are trickling down. its gone from handful of tech’s general to almost 30,000 of its grunts. Because that’s what we need right now. If tech is going to disrupt every industry take over the world, it needs an army.