Dorks, geeks and nerds at SXSWi

South by Southwest Interactive. Photograph: Randy Stewart/Stewtopia

The Dorkbot Overlord looks visibly relieved when the two giant Tesla coils on stage start arcing and sparking to the tune of Greensleeves. The noise is incredible.

South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive isn’t known as the spring break for nerds for nothing. One overhears jokes like “What’s the difference between geeks and nerds? Geeks watch Star Trek, nerds know Klingon”.

The gag is discriminatory in that it doesn’t mention dorks. But the dorks wouldn’t care. They have their own event at SXSWi and Dorkbot, with its musical Tesla coils is it. On the Friday evening, the Overlord summons his fellow dorks to drink beer and show off the fruits of their homemade efforts. There are DIY synthesisers, autonomous robots and various other bits and pieces patched together from cannibalised hulks of old electronics.

I’m at SXSW to host a panel discussion asking whether the internet and open collaboration are killing creativity. “No” says open source pioneer Tim O’Reilly when we interview him the day before. The Wright Brothers didn’t invent the aircraft to make money, they did it because they were passionate. Andrew Keen takes the opposite view. He reckons our insatiable appetite for free stuff is driving out talented artists and innovators, leaving the vacuum to be filled with all that’s mediocre and inane.

Our panellist Steve Rosenbaum of the video curation website tells our audience he likes Andrew Keen, even though he disagrees with him. The sentiment is similar from blogger and broadcaster Jamillah Knowles and from June Cohen, executive producer at TED. June sweeps onto our stage having just announced that TED is opening up its content and metadata for developers to build services and applications around TED’s video archive.

Nearly everyone in the room broadly agrees that openness online and in society is a good thing. But we’re at SXSW, so this is a pretty self-selecting crowd. An artist at the front of the audience is less sure, worried about how to protect her intellectual property and make a living out of her work. Elsewhere I meet a chap from a major London venue who says that it’s increasingly hard to find new talent. The major record labels are becoming ever more conservative, only signing up mainstream bankable artists. Lesser singers and bands either give their music away or just disappear altogether. The talent pool is shrinking.

Back with Andrew Keen, one of the few points he concedes when I argue in favour of openness, is that science and innovation benefit from collaboration and sharing results. For all his contrarian outpourings, Andrew Keen is not exactly an outsider at SXSW. He uses the social media as much as anyone else. He has a profile to maintain and books to sell after all.

Andrew Keen is always fun to interview. He’s as caustic and curmudgeonly in the flesh as he is on the page. But he’s a bright a guy with a dry wit. You sense that one isn’t meant to take it all too seriously. He just wants to spark an intelligent debate.

Answering a question about Facebook, he says I have a cheek to suggest that everyone wants to party on a Friday night. He knows very well that’s not quite what I meant but, hey, it’s all good radio. Nobody would seriously deny that, in this world, there’s a quiet recluse for every party animal.

But it’s the latter category in evidence a couple of hours later out on crazy, noisy Sixth Street. I bump into Clay Shirky who, like me, is flitting between bars. A souvenir shop nearby sells mugs and t-shirts bearing the city’s motto “Keep Austin Weird”. SXSW, with its spectrum of dorks, geeks and nerds somewhere on the scale between Keen and Shirky, is certainly seeing to that.

Gareth Mitchell is a lecturer on the Imperial Science Communication and Science Media Production masters programmes, and also presents Digital Planet on BBC World Service

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