Viewpoint: Cory Booker Wins South By Southwest (SXSW) — How a Mayor Conquered America’s Biggest Tech Festival

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Waytao Shing / Getty Images for SXSW

Steven Snyder, assistant managing editor of TIME.com and Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ speak onstage at the 2013 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Long Center on Mar. 10, 2013 in Austin, TX.

Our time had expired, I was getting the “wrap it up, now!” signal from the volunteers charged with keeping the tech festival moving, and yet I knew the moment Mayor Cory Booker nearly vaulted out of his chair for one final question that things would run late. Very late.

In one of the most stirring 15-minute closing monologues I have witnessed at South By Southwest Interactive, the mayor of Newark laid out his vision for not just why social media must play an integral role in bringing government closer to its population but also why America will achieve its full potential only once the people collectively embrace what he identified as a “declaration of interdependence.”

Edging forward in his seat, Booker poured over his personal history, his hopes for the future, and his commitment to be an active player in the “conspiracy of love” that he says has defined his family — and his country. For the first fifty minutes of Sunday’s conversation, I had been the interviewer and facilitator, marching Booker through his social media history (both hits and flubs) and his new initiative with the social video site Waywire (you can read through the highlights here). But his closing stump speech required no prompts or queries; it was a sweeping, emotional, extemporaneous eruption of beliefs and commitments. The Atlantic’s Timothy Bella might have said it best when he declared: “It was a tour de force of old-school charismatic politics…as well-received as Booker’s Twitter presence is for its personal touch, the live version might be better.”

So I wasn’t exactly surprised when my final follow-up question was drowned out by a minute-long ovation. I also wasn’t surprised when, late Tuesday evening, Mayor Booker was bestowed with the prestigious designation of “Speaker of the Event.” What did surprise me was how the Booker session emerged as a defining intermission in my SXSW 2013 experience. Not to sound naïve here, but after the Booker session I found myself asking different kinds of questions and measuring panels by a whole different set of criteria.

(MORE: Film, Music, Tech — Check Out TIME’s Complete South By Southwest Coverage)

The epic Booker epilogue began in earnest with these lines: “The tools of our parents worked so well with media. They mastered it and organized. We’re not mastering those tools. We have better tools than they had. We can create values in places that our parents couldn’t even imagine.” The “tool,” obviously, is social media – platforms through which we all can reach a critical mass of people with a single tweet or post. As for the “values,” Booker pointed to the concepts of transparent government, leaders who are immersed in their communities, and the potential for individuals to steer the political discourse away from the sound bites and controversy of the media “oligarchy.”

All rhetoric we’ve heard before, sure. But then a strange thing happened: Booker started connecting the dots of the individual acts of kindness that shaped his father’s life, empowering him to go to school. The mayor then drew a through line to his own daily gestures, and I began reflecting on the fact that it hasn’t been the scale of Booker’s tweets or deeds, but rather his consistency and commitment, that has most amazed me. From early morning to late night, from house fires to (just this evening) a cat stuck on a roof, the mayor has used the forum of Twitter to remain engaged with those in his city. Just as President Obama has bemoaned the White House bubble, Booker has used his tweets to remain immersed in the daily Newark conversation. He’s also used Twitter as a forum for activism, a means of bragging about his city’s accomplishments and a channel through which he can help residents with everything from administrative questions to inspirational quotes.

He said he likes knowing Newark citizens expect their mayor to be accountable, available and engaged. And he thinks the more that Americans outside of Newark expect much the same from their elected officials, judging them on results and engagement versus media appearances, the more they will come to become active participants in our political process. Quoting Booker via the Atlantic: “What’s happening is getting very, very dangerous, in my opinion, for how politics function. We’re losing truth. We’re losing authenticity. We are losing the soul of our politics… If we continue with the zero sum-gain politics, then as a country we’re not going to be able to deal with the complicated problems that are still undermining the robust truth of what this democracy could be.”

(MORE: How Gadgets Will Tell Us About Ourselves — The ‘Quantified Self’ Evolves At SXSW 2013)

Booker also sees “tools” that extend well beyond the realm of politics. Discussing the shortfall in volunteers across America, and decrying the fact that there are many kids across the nation who are on waiting lists for mentors and “Big Brothers,” Booker pointed to online operations like iMentor, which are using technology to connect people in ways that previously would have been logistically impossible.

Booker may have been railing against political apathy but, in the process, he also managed to cut through some of my SXSW ennui. Wandering Austin for the last several days, awash in gadgets, business models and venture pitches, I found it easy to grow jaded about the supposed Next Big Thing. But Booker’s romantic view of the Old Big Thing actually succeeded in getting me to think differently. Rather than just focusing on the technological back-end, the distribution strategy, the seed capital or the advancements to the interface, I found myself focusing instead on more fundamental issues: How will this product empower users, and bring communities closer together?

For that’s still what makes South By Southwest Interactive an indispensable gathering of the minds – that this isn’t just a place focused on individual inventors or celebrities but on societal advancements. One impressive pitch here can be the starting point for a process/product that will change the way we communicate, vote, volunteer, and live our daily lives.

In hindsight, what was most astonishing about Mayor Booker’s speech was how un-astonishing it was. He focused not on the what or how, but on the why – why are we inventing and using this technology? Who can benefit from it? When will we realize our potential?

Such simple questions at a proudly complex festival – and yet everywhere I looked, inspiration and euphoria. I bet we could have kept going for another hour.

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