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Brian Reich and a Response to SXSW Interactive's Brand Nation

Brian Reich

Brand is so omnipresent at SXSW that companies strap fur to cars to try and catch your numbed out attention.

One thing about Interactive and I guess, SXSW in general, is that it's difficult to take reality completely tiled in brand. It's so omnipresent that companies strap fur to cars to try and catch your numbed out attention. It was a hairy van, so I’m guessing it’s a company that makes an Instagram filter which turns everything into a '70s porn. It’s an extra layer of creepy at Interactive because people use branding language about their lives and then try to sell that back to you. It’s also fucking ugly. There’s the incessant crunch of plastic as you’re handed things to throw away. It’s probably the Midwesterner in me that finds handing me garbage an impolite introduction. At some point during the day, I decided that the best use of my energy would be spent figuring out the lyrics to the R&B track I want to write called “Trapped in a Pitch”. I want Miguel to sing it and Pierre Hardy to sponsor it. Oh, and there is lots of Utopianism and free things that feel like they still owe you.

I spent a lot of my time in the Beacon Lounge. I loved it, it was my favorite space, had the nicest people. In particular, the woman who ran it - I did not formally meet you, but you were repeatedly one of the most gracious strangers I’ve ever met. Thank you. One afternoon in the lounge, Brian Reich came in and described a blog post he had written to the non-profit world. He claimed to have something like a bad reputation, that people have called him Chief Asshole. He seemed unfailingly nice and thoughtful to me, so I’d like to tell everyone that as President Asshole, I review even the constable openings. This dude was never hired.

Reich’s argument was about the position of social good at the conference and the missed opportunity of SXSW. He said in person at the lounge that they should start an online petition for a keynote address that would heavily feature philanthropy work and social good. It’s a great argument, you absolutely should read his thoughts, but the gist for me was that he regretted the way that corporations use social responsibility as the modern means of buying an indulgence. By that I mean, no one in their right fucking mind here at the conference would go work in a factory for Apple in China. Most of these companies would collaborate with a fascist regime if it meant access to untapped markets.

Social good is always going to have to be wrung out of corporations with guilt because their main purpose for existence is profit. I don't hate them for that at all, that motivation happens to produce amazing content. The idea of the new business model was always just a expiation of sin, real or perceived, or meant in the other way we use model, something beautiful to put your brand on. There is only the business model, the one that used poor Chinese to build our railroads and the one that now has them building our iPhones. I’m not trying to be dick to you, I have no doubts about your intentions. I just think nonprofits should find the least expensive way to part tech companies from their cash and their tech. SXSW can't be it.

People sell products and epiphany techniques here. Epiphanies are designer drugs for educated people. My advice is to not be the Debbie. And I know you come from the right place, so let me just ask you to do a thought experiment. Have you heard about this kid, William Kamkwamba from the movie, William and the Windmill. You probably have more than me because you are more intimately connected to this world, but it's a documentary about the Malawian teenager who drops out of school and teaches himself to build a windmill to save his family from famine.

I want you to meet that guy and tell him your idea about the keynote petition. Ask him if he knows, y’know, how important the keynote speech at an epic work conference is. Tell him you want to make expensively staged generalizations. I think your thoughts are generous and kind, but I also think a lot of people who get to come here don’t want to call it a vacation out loud. Me, I took vacation time, I’m having a blast writing and thinking about shit, but I do not think I'm going to be reborn into a benevolent corporate success religion. Yes, ideas and great art do emerge from here, but so does a lot of pricey self promotion. You know who loves to come and be super super serious? The people carrying crucifixes on 6th Street. Talk about ruining a brand. I’m still just a working class person living from paycheck to paycheck from a family who did the same, which is worlds above the worst problems in this world. Taking all that into consideration, I would take a bucket of really good chicken over a keynote speech any day.

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