At SXSW, a pathetic tech future is struggling to dawn
Image: Doodle House via Vice
It didn’t really strike me that I was in some kind of special hell until I was aimlessly walking through Austin for SXSW and came across a place with some puffy geodesic domes. There were large 3D anthropomorphic bunnies stuck all over the place, which I figured out were somehow related to crypto, though the manner was unclear. Large screens inside and outside the domes played a panel where a member of Linkin Park created a song that would be hit as NFT as a discussion of the liberating potential of the metaverse. And somewhere, a loud voice rang out a cult mantra: “It changes the future. This is the FLUF house. It’s the Hume Collective, so remember why you’re here. Remember the power you have. The power of this community, and when it gets tough, remember you’re not alone.
This week, while at SXSW to talk about two panels on crypto skepticism and algorithmic work, I got to check out if crypto, NFTs, web3, and the metaverse are really taking over Austin. What I found was a series of deeply disappointing, mundane, and frankly pathetic demos and setups that suggest that if these digital technologies take over the world, it will be because of the money their biggest boosters have and the ease with which this is possible. money to generate interest as opposed to anything that has real social utility.
NFT, Augmented and Virtual Reality (collectively referred to as “XR” or Extended Reality at SXSW) art installations like Facebook offering a digital POV where you were the last person rescued from the rubble left by the 9/11 attacks – an absurd and disturbing idea for a “metaverse” that has become an iconic symbol of this year’s SXSW. But that’s not all. There were crypto-influencer parties and DJ sets, metaverse signs and drones forming QR codes in the sky to advertise the upcoming TV adaptation of the Halo series of video games. In fact, a company the state of Texas has accused of selling unregistered securities—Celsius Network, one of the world’s largest crypto lenders—was front and center in one of the rooms. SXSW exhibition reserved for stand presentations.
For some participants, I’m sure it all felt like the future was here. And yet, despite all the talk I heard about ushering in a new era of diversity and inclusion, it was hard not to notice that each room felt largely the same: crowds of wealthy white men who were quick to say they worked in finance, technology, marketing, or some buzzing amalgamation of the three. This, at a conference in a state where a series of anti-trans legislative and executive pressures culminated when Governor Greg Abbott led the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate families of trans children who receive gender-affirming care last month.
When the conversation inevitably touched on the seeming homogeneity of the industry at SXSW despite the progress made in recent years, the same old kind of posturing ensued.
“I don’t want to live in a metaverse built by white men,” Alex Smeele, the white co-founder of the New Zealand NFT project FLUF, told me in an interview. “If we don’t engage the rest of the world — First Nations storytellers, Indigenous people — it’s going to be a really shitty metaverse. Black people invented culture.”
The FLUF project is a venture by New Zealand creative studio Non-Fungible Labs, offering a collection of three-dimensional rabbit avatars as a cornerstone of a community. The focus on rabbits goes back to a giant Flemish rabbit owned by a creative director who Smeele says has become the “God of our ecosystem.”
Although FLUF doesn’t have much of a public track record (Smeele said “I don’t think anyone would believe what we have planned” and “when you commit to a track record from afar, especially in an industry evolving rapidly, you’re often the king of digging yourself in a hole”), it seems to be largely focused on creating an ecosystem that can be fully marketed by community members who will also be creators and content consumers. All of this is then wrapped up in a rhetoric about creating fully commodified and marketed communities where interactions are mediated by transactions and markets that will in effect liberate people from a world dominated by transactions and markets.
“The biggest opportunity in the metaverse: it’s actually just the ability to unleash people’s creativity again. most people,” Smeele said. “So it’s about how we can rethink how we learn how we play, how we work in a way that feeds society as a whole and empowers the individual.”
Today, FLUF isn’t particularly unique among SXSW’s crypto projects, but it’s iconic: speculative crypto fervor has driven it to a total market capitalization of $1.8 trillion (from a peak of $3 trillion in November), each project speaks incredibly searing rhetoric about how it would change the world (an “open metaverse” was the Manchurian FLUF nominee’s watchword), but almost none of it was decipherable when you walked into a space they spent time and money designing themselves.
Like most crypto “activations” (another word for setup), FLUF had free drinks (although one of the bars was infested with bees, so I kept my distance) and live music and screens showing panels attended by the co-founders of FLUF. There were large, dimly lit domes, one of which had an altar for a rabbit inside and above pictorial visions of an overgrown Bugs Bunny trapped in a sparse desert cave. “Sounds like a bad trip,” I heard someone mutter at the exact moment I leaned over to say the same to a friend.
Above us, a woman in a trance stood on a platform and plucked harp strings that stretched the length of the room with such vigor that a few people I spoke to and I listened to debated whether she was actually playing or if a recording did the job. .
“I don’t really know what the point of all this is,” Liam, a social marketer who held a few crypto tokens, told me during one of my visits to the FLUF facility. “It’s a bit lame and I don’t see any use for it, but maybe other people are interested, so maybe I should join?”
“I wish I knew what all of this was supposed to mean,” one attendee told me before shrugging and leaving the room. Another person who tried to play me beer pong (a table was set up near the vendor booths near the front) laughed when I asked if they had a FLUF NFT and ignored my attempts to ask new. A couple I met in one of the domes discussed a bit about the purpose of the project: “a metaverse where we could be animals,” one said while the other insisted on “an NFT project with a 3D house”.
There is something in all these attempts at agreement. FLUF imagines it will use “infinite rarity” to create highly curated worlds with “a mix of the best elements from triple-A title games” as well as community content. Smeele imagined something like a “the Lord of the Rings world” like the brand universes of Player Ready One, its descriptions evoking images of existing products like Halo‘s Forge or Epic Games’ fortnite, but somehow less free than the first and more commodified than the second.
Yet the most common comment from participants was that they bet they could make money from it because they knew or had heard of people flipping their NFTs for profit. It wasn’t a desire for community or curation, it was the prevailing sentiment that I encountered not only at FLUF, but a host of other crypto, web3, metaverse, and NFT projects and events. When asked how to curb the kind of speculative interest that seems to be getting a lot of industry buzz, FLUF said they hope to design NFTs to deter Fluffs from flipping.
“You can’t ignore the fact that people see this as a way to develop an alternative source of income. Your generation has been left out of the housing market,” said Brooke Howard-Smith, another co-founder of FLUF. “We can try to find mechanisms and build community dialogue, when new people come in. I don’t mean ‘doctrinated’ but definitely integrated by our super positive, super inclusive [community].”
It didn’t matter if it was an empty “algorave” DJ set at BlockChain Creative Labs (which was a major sponsor of SXSW this year) that barely mentioned crypto or the company’s work or if there was had a few shows to play. like at the Doodles House with a wall that allows you to control a cursor to try out Paint but on the big screen, or an “XR” showcase like Marcel.art’s Gallery where digital artists present their art in the form of NFTs. Everything was surprisingly mundane and disappointing.
Crypto’s endless appearance at SXSW felt less like a grand conquest than a quiet takeover with influencers (Paris Hilton, for example, hosted a DJ set one night), free booze, setups gimmicks, networking, vague program descriptions, and the ever-present promise of more money to be made (or lost if you don’t participate).
But again, of course it is. Most of the hype around crypto, NFTs, web3 and the metaverse is generated, after all, by already wealthy participants eager to bring fresh blood to the casino. I just expected the outsized wealth present in this space to mean something more impressive than Second Life mods projected onto screens – but maybe that means the hype is working if I naively anticipate something other than shows given how little of this space is something other than speculation: speculative finance, speculative technology and speculative visions.