Synthetic serendipity at SXSW

We've been told more than once that technological creativity flourishes in downturns, with Google's birth during the last web bust as the cardinal example. This time around, one gets the sense that the next technology boom will be driven by a phenomenon Vernor Vinge anticipated in a 2004 short story called "Synthetic Serendipity" -- the marriage of gaming and real life.

But first, I'll give you a sense of where I've been. At this year's SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, turnout exceeded expectations. Because of the economic turmoil, many expected that technology companies large and small would steer clear. But starting about a month ago, announcements for product launches and parties mushroomed. For whatever reason, money and enthusiasm seemed to flow. One plausible theory is that as investment landscape darkens, venture capital actually looks like a better bet relative to the other options. Southby began as a music festival, yet the interactive component -- a broad rubric that encompasses all manner of technological and multimedia doings -- has increasingly taken pride of place.

There is a certain logic to this. Indie rock and the interactive economy are both bourgeois bohemian fixtures, and it's no surprise that there are synergies between them. Austin prides itself on being America's "live music capital," which is to say the city prides itself on packaging and selling experience. That happens to be the exact same goal as our most celebrated technologists.

One of the more notable product launches at this year's festival was for Loudcrowd, a somewhat baffling service that Leena Rao of TechCrunch described as follows:

Loudcrowd wants to create the feel of an online concert or dance club for users. The site will feature social games that will be played simultaneously with music tracks as well as daily playlists from guest DJs. Loudcrowd's feature Dance game is similar to the popular game Dance, Dance Revolution and is pretty innovative. Loudcrowd says that the dance game has been played more than one million times since they entered private beta, with over 25 percent of users visiting the site more than 100 times a month. The games are all built on Flash and the animation is disarmingly good.

Overall, the impression I get is of a hipster Second Life that involves dancing alone, or rather dancing by touchpad. One is reminded of the anomic dystopia vividly described in Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Yet I'm pretty sure I will, despite my better judgment, soon become an enthusiastic user of Loudcrowd, and perhaps you will too. As the unemployment rate spikes and as non-virtual live music becomes prohibitively expensive, it is easy to imagine impecunious youths eschewing going out to buy overpriced alcopops in favor of long Loudcrowd sessions at home or while wandering the streets. To some extent, Loudcrowd is reminiscent of the mobile MMOGs that have taken South Korea and other Asian markets by storm. That said, this does seem like more of a niche play than Twitter, which debuted at SXSWi in 2007. Of course, I'm not much of a seer: when I saw my friends Tweeting at that year's festival, I was dismissive and I later signed up for a rival service called Jaiku. Suffice to say, Jaiku is now dead and I am Tweeting with all of the other bozos.

This leads me to a more promising product launch, and to Vinge's vision of the future. Foursquare, the brainchild of Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai, is an ingenious service that turns finding your friends into a Zelda-like quest. Crowley is best known for having created Dodgeball, a rather more primitive location-aware(ish) mobile social network that was ahead of its time -- so far ahead of its time that it wasn't all that useful. Acquired by Google, Dodgeball was left to die on the vine. And as the technology landscape has grown crowded with location-aware services, Foursquare has taken a highly distinctive, and highly entertaining, spin on the concept. Jenna Wortham of the New York Times summed it up.

Foursquare players "check in" via iPhone application, text message or the Web. That alerts their network of friends to their current location, in case they feel like dropping by to say hello or have a drink. (If you're flying solo, or on a date, Foursquare allows you to check in without posting your location.) Players rack up points for checking in at unusual places, early hours of the morning or in the same location as other users in their network.

The Foursquareverse is designed to grow denser over time as users layer recommendations and other content over the physical map. In "Synthetic Serendipity," Vinge imagines a world in which millions play games that layer new virtual realities over the mundane everyday world. Like Foursquare, daily tasks are assigned new meaning and value. For example, taking a particular bus route could represent slaying a dragon in some elaborate medieval scenario, or delivering a package could win you hundreds of gold doubloons in an alternate-reality pirate quest.

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Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at Economics 21, a columnist for The Daily, and a blogger for National Review Online.

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