Mark Henricks is reporting live from SXSW.
Social networking, mobile functionality and new media are making some entrepreneurs and enterprises rich, but to Baratunde Thurston (pictured) that's only half the story. In his keynote address at SXSW Interactive 2012, the comedian and writer painted a compelling portrait of the way technology is helping people make other people laugh and, maybe, in the process changing the world.
Thurston , who writes for the satirical Onion newspaper, was presenting his worldview to an audience of programmers, designers, marketers and other inhabitants of the strictly commercial side of emerging technologies. By the end of his hour-long jaunt through the various ways comics and commentators around the world are using these technologies, he'd given them a few laughs and a few new ways to look at what technology is capable of.
Thurston started with a synopsis of his family's history that included a grandfather born into slavery who taught himself to write and his mother, who marched in 1960s civil rights protests in Washington, D.C. Today, the Harvard-educated Thurston declared, rather than marching in the streets, many of those seeking social change around the world turn to the Internet.
He told about an Egyptian cardiologist-turned-YouTube celebrity, Bassem Youssef, who had become a minor celebrity by poking fun at the government with Jon Stewart-style phony newscasts. “Comedians have often played this role of communicating truth indirectly,” Thurston argued.
In the U.S., he pointed to Laughter Against the Machine, a troupe of satirists that put together a tour and set of online events in support of the Occupy movement. While much of the comedy Thurston highlighted was rough-edged, he made the point that what mattered was not its polish but its presence.
“The magic of our times is everybody can have a voice. And some of the tragedy of our times is that everybody can have a voice,” he added. With all the ways people can put their thoughts out there for billions to see, he said there is a need for some entity to help consumers make sense of it all. Government, he said, is the opponent, while religion is having trouble finding a way to the new media, and the traditional media is more concerned about what will happen to it.
“Who's left?” Thurston asked. “You have comics willing to speak truth to the youth and beyond.” To support the claim, he showed a plethora of pages and videos from Onion-like satires plaguing the powers that be from Nigeria and Iran to China and Afghanistan.
Then he proposed that humor and coding probably had more in common than a lot of interactive business types suspected. “To me it's not about comedy or content creation,” he said. “It's much more. It's about freedom. It's about the revolutionary act of teaching yourself to read.”
Before releasing the audience to head back to its diet of analytics and APIs, Thurston struck a somewhat serious note. ”We need to understand,” he said, “that we are creating magical tools and that people around the world are using and depending on them.”
Photo credit: Mark Henricks