15 SXSW Interactive Panels You Should Know

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SXSW Interactive, that Austin-based carnival of BBQ, tacos, and nerdiness, isn't until March, but now is the time when you can shape the program.

Thousands of prospective panels get submitted by people like me -- and then you get to vote, winnowing down the field to a select few.

It's impossible to go through every panel. Here are 13 that caught my eye, and two that I might present on myself. Some I chose because I know the presenters are good. Some I picked because the subject matter is interesting to me. And some I selected because the description is good.

I know there are other excellent panels out there, and I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted
Richard Nash, head of the book publishing startup Cursor, might be the most challenging thinker about the future of the book out there. Nash explores the deep structural problems of the system that brings you books, and he's no stranger to saying controversial things. "In the Assassin's Code, the death of God makes everything possible. Many believe that the network makes everything possible," we read in Nash's descrption. "But if everything is possible, how does anything matter? In art, what is left out is as important as what is included. Can the rules of making art help us make more useful technology?"

Urban Technology on the Dark Side
Molly Wright Steenson, a fixture of SXSW and now a doctoral student in architecture at Princeton, will present a critical exploration of "urban computing." Turns out, it's not all fun and alternate reality games. "There's a dark side to urban technology, with surveillance and subversion in operation and in opposition. It shouldn't be a surprise: most technologies we use were originally developed in the military before making their way to the civilian side," she writes. "But mostly, when we talk about urban computing, we tend to focus on its optimistic and entertaining uses. This panel confronts the relationship of cities to technology."

How Progress Bars Change the Way We Live
I'm fascinated by the conceit of this Evan Jones talk, which promises to show how that little bar on your LinkedIn profile informing you of your incompleteness is a radical innovation. "Is the progress bar's ubiquity in technology starting to affect the way we measure progress in meatspace? This panel will reach far across time and space to look at the story of progress bars, why they hypnotize us."

The Grand Challenges in Media
Robin Sloan is a serious media innovator, having moved from Current TV futurist to Kickstarter-funded novelist to media integrator at Twitter. He's going to "describe the significant unsolved problems in media, and talk about why they matter," and then offer "a starter kit" of models and ideas that point to a solution.

A User's Guide to Architectural Histories and Fictions
Enrique Ramirez will bring together some of the most interesting practitioners of architectural history and practice. In his words, they will cover: "green technologies, airplanes-and-ships-as-architecture, fake manifestoes, fictional histories, real fictions, urban spacesuits, people movers, jet-pack rentals, liquid architectures, vegetative structures, pneumatic pods, and many, many other things." Sounds good to me!

Geospacial Hacking: Location! Dislocation! Relocation!
IBM's Andrew Sempere leads a group that will talk about the importance of presence and place in a world overlaid with electromagnetic communication. He's got designers and artists talking about hacking our notion of what it means to be somewhere. "What does it mean to occupy a location? What does it mean to visit a place? Does architecture still matter?"

Social Media Is Science Fiction
IO9's Annalee Newitz leads a panel with artist Molly Crabapple, writer Maureen McHugh, futurist Jamais Cascio, and fellow IO9er Charlie Jane Anders. All five are delightful purveyors of news from our weird broken future. And I mean that in a good way. "What do science fiction stories tell us about how social networking and user-generated content will evolve? How it will affect us as a civilization? Futurists and SF writers will explore real possibilities for the next fifty years of social media - and debunk bad futurism that predicts either total abundance or complete apocalypse." 

Unpacking Gender: Men, Women, Technology and More
This might seem like a dry or academic topic, but materials scientist Debbie Chachra and writer Quinn Norton both have really interesting things to say about, well, everything. Remember that Norton wrote this mindblowing feature about people who have illegal surgery (!) to install rare earth magnets into their fingers(!), so that they can feel magnetic fields(!).

Who Are You and Why Should We Care
A presentation on the value of authenticity online, the real draw is the excellent panel including the likes AllThingsD's Kara Swisher and Fast Company's Ellen McGirt.

Predictions and the News: Getting the Future Right
NPR's Matt Thompson's presentation on the future of predictions in journalism sounds deep.
"The most important decisions we make as a society are based on claims about the future," he notes, yet rarely does this futurology get assessed. He's going to offer new approaches to peering into the future in news stories.

Offline America, Why We Have A Digital Divide
Librarian Jessamyn West will look at why 22 percent of Americans aren't online. I, for one, have a hard time imagining that state, and it's not all explained by age and socioeconomic circumstances. Expect a deeper dive than you signed up for. "There is a complex combination of emotional, political and logistical reasons why 35% of Americans have no broadband at home and why 22% do not use the internet at all. We can't start solving the problem until we understand it." 

Caring For Your Online Introvert
Joanne McNeil's essay about what it's like to be an introvert online has bounced around the Internet for months (and was inspired by a 2003 Atlantic article). There's something about it that connected with people. Reading it again, I was struck by how precisely she sketched the feelings that always-on Internetting brings out in us. Should be a great talk.

Hacking the News: Applying Computer Science to Journalism
Burt Herman's Hacks and Hackers is one of San Francisco's most interesting series of events. It brings together people skilled at writing with those well-versed in code so they can learn from each other. Bringing this idea to SXSW seems like a no-brainer.

And finally, allow me to plug my own possible contributions:

The Magazine Formerly Known As 48 Hour
Right before I started at The Atlantic, I co-founded a sporadic magazine (with Mat Honan and Sarah Rich) on the premise that you could solicit submissions, edit, illustrate, and publish a gorgeous paper text in 48 hours. It worked! Mostly. (Enough to win a Knight Batten Special Distinction Award for innovation.) In this presentation, we'd show you how we did it, including our workflow and coffee consumption tips.

How Internet Media is Shaping the Greentech Revolution
Organized by GigaOm's Katie Fehrenbacher, who covers green tech startups better than anyone, this is a heavy-hitting panel. New York Times regular Todd Woody, Grist senior staff writer Dave Roberts, and I will talk about how digital media can be a hidden lever in transforming our energy system.


Image: Torchy's Tacos, quite possibly the best place on Earth. Did you know that they fry avocados in Texas? They do! And they are delicious. flickr/MikeLewis
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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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