There's a decided kindergarten theme to interactive programs like "Let's Hook Up: Brands, Celebs, and Non-profits." Still, the optimism is genuine, and the solutions often pragmatic. Bent on not repeating history, speakers (who propose their own topics) seriously consider overlooked issues, like "Getting More Women Into New Media & Tech," and "Accelerating the Electric Car Movement." Potential pitfalls are addressed in talks like "Understanding the Problems of Convergence Culture." And through it all, the greatest impediment to progress out there — capitalist avarice — is not the elephant in any interactive room, but rather the bloody, bludgeoned beast who gets dragged out by the tusks after each session.
Siva Vaidhyanathan unsuccessfully attempted to lure Whole Foods CEO John Mackey onto his SXSWi panel, "Be Evil: Does Corporate Responsibility Matter?" Vaidhyanathan, a writer and media professor at the University of Virginia, thought Mackey would be a choice candidate to wrestle the tentative hypothesis that corporate meddling in social causes may do more harm than good. Challenging ideals that drive SXSWi, Vaidhyanathan played devil's advocate and questioned Mackey's "voluntary exchange" theory, in which "mutual benefit is the ethical foundation of business and capitalism."
Through his critical lens, the author of The Googlization of Everything — and Why We Shouldn't Worry nonetheless acknowledged the virtues of responsible companies. Though Vaidhyanathan accused Google of having a dangerously inflated sense of self-confidence, he says the all-powerful culture engine, to its credit, essentially maintains healthy partnerships with users, employees, and the larger global community. Meanwhile, Vaidhyanathan mocked selfish business practices, and even led a good old lefty laugh at the expense of Ayn Rand fans who read Atlas Shrugged on taxpayer-subsidized airplanes without realizing the irony. Jokes aside, though, Vaidhyanathan did scramble the zeitgeist, reminding us that free market ideologues will eschew the altruistic propositions on parade at SXSWi.
Not everyone agreed. One speaker who countered Vaidhyanathan's pessimism was Simon Mainwaring, the kind of bronzed Aussie who steals fiancées in romantic comedies, and a former creative director at Ogilvy. On the final day of interactive, Mainwaring led a talk about "How Social Media Can Remake Capitalism and Build a Better World." He is dedicated to engineering corporate change; his concern is less whether companies like Nike really give a shit, and more the extent to which they partner with entities that do. As a winning example, he cited project (RED), a joint campaign between Global Fund and blue-chip companies including Gap and Apple that's generated more than $150 million for HIV and AIDS programs in Africa.
Preaching the gospel of "We First" (also, non-coincidentally, the name of his consulting firm and his new book), Mainwaring reeled off profound statements that got everyone from admen to techies nodding: "Social media is awakening our empathy. . . . The virtual world will save the real world."
Mainwaring's sound byte could have served as a SXSWi tagline. His Gandhi 2.0 adages may sound corny to some — particularly ones like "the future of profit is purpose." But for the several thousand SXSWi attendees who already worship at the "we first" altar, and who are coaxing companies collar-first into the matrix, the Golden Rule is a long-established guideline for succeeding online.
Chris Faraone can be reached at email@example.com.