There are numerous reasons to attend South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive – gadget demos, professional networking, celebrity schmoozing – but what I’ve always enjoyed most here are the case studies and thought experiments that allow the tech world to pause for a beat, moving momentarily beyond How It All Works to reflect instead on Why Are We Building All This In The First Place?
Call me naïve, but I still believe we’re in the early phases of tech-as-daily-routine — still grappling with how closely we want to be connected, and what gadgets/networks actually improve our lives. Every year in Austin, I see a new wave of start-ups and platforms, and even if I’m not convinced that what I’m seeing is The Next Great Thing, I’m almost always fascinated by the debate that ensues: How will the Next Great Thing make our lives more enjoyable? And what does that enjoyment say about us as a species?
(MORE: Tech, music, film — See TIME’s Complete Coverage of SXSW 2013)
In past years, I’ve listened to plenty of broad, sweeping discussions – about how to use geolocation, how to reinvent the modern library, how richer data visualization can radically alter our perceptions of the world. However, surveying the 2013 program — which commences in earnest Saturday morning — there seems to be less philosophy and more practicality. The portfolio of panels is still as broad (and overwhelming) as ever, but within the festival’s core themes there’s a whole lot less “WHAT IF?” to be found in discussions that seem slightly more focused and sensible.
TIME has rapidly expanded its presence at the festival. Harry McCracken, who is himself presenting in Austin, has already published a list of TIME’s key events. Beyond our slate of programming, here are five major themes that have caught my eye, in propelling the discussion of SXSW 2013:
1. 3D Printing. Given the considerable advancements in physical printing technology, 3D printing discussions are now turning towards applications, distribution and economics. There are scores of 3D printing panels and discussions at SXSW 2013, including Sunday’s keynote by Tina Roth Eisenberg that should focus in large part on 3D printing design. One provocative session scheduled for Monday will focus on the controversial 3D gun printing collective Defense Distributed.
2. The Quantified Self. Forget data about the world around us; in recent years an evolving trend has been users gathering, organizing and analyzing data about themselves. Numerous panels at SXSW 2013 focus on this trend, of using technology to better understand the way we eat, exercise, manage our time, etc. Some of the most interesting panels, to be found near the end of the fest on Tuesday, examine how we can use data measurements to offer more precise and personalized health care.
3. Wearable Tech. The more technology evolves from bulky external devices to lightweight hands-on attire, the more it will augment our senses and daily routines. A whole series of SXSW discussions will focus on the implications of mankind wearing technology as the extension of the body, and how it will alter our perspectives on everything from health to relationships to fashion.
4. DIY. SXSW has always been a place to share hacks and code, but I’ve been particularly inspired as the festival’s DIY culture has gone mainstream. The do-it-yourself slate of 2013 is particularly far-flung, with events involving areas as varied as screenprinting, auto manufacturing, cartoon drawing and, of course, robotics.
5. Space Tech. A frenzy of space speculation kicks off at SXSW Saturday, with Elon Musk’s keynote at 2 p.m. Ever since NASA made the push to privatize a segment of the space industry, it has thrown the door open for companies like SpaceX to experiment, innovate and dream big. One of the panels I am most interested in features TIME’s own Jeff Kluger, of Apollo 13 fame – “Space Tech After NASA: Boom Times for Innovation?” Kluger presents on Tuesday.