Star Wars, Elon Musk and cheese: What I learned at SXSW 2018

South by Southwest can be an overwhelming affair for anyone making the trip. Here are some key highlights from the conference.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
5 min read

Elon Musk dropped in on SXSW 2018.


Try as you might, SXSW is too big to see at once.

It's like standing at the foot of a skyscraper and craning your neck to see the top. You just can't.

The South by Southwest Conference and Festivals, as the event is now called (SXSW for short), has been around since the late 1980s. Last year's show drew more than 70,000 people to Austin, Texas, over the course of roughly a week to attend more than 2,000 conference sessions. Along the way, they heard more than 5,000 speakers and hit up more than a thousand official parties and events.

Over the years, the conference has grown to encompass music, film, tech and more. It blew up into a cultural event attracting people who want to be where the buzz is. Companies like Twitter and Foursquare and the once-hot live-streaming platform Meerkat launched from SXSW once upon a time.

I sure tried to see it all. Or at least, as much as possible. Over the last few days I sprinted around the SXSW Interactive portion of the event, with a few dips into SXSW Film to catch the techiest, geekiest and cheesiest stuff (literally) I could find. Along the way, I consumed 10 tacos, rocked at least five wristbands and shot nearly 9 gigabytes of photos and video.

At SXSW, whatever you're looking for, chances are, there's plenty of it. From " Star Wars " to the real stars above us, here are five things I learned from SXSW 2018.

SXSW packs in surprises

I spent hours combing through the endless and dense SXSW online conference schedule, only to have it mostly shot to pieces by some cool, yet disruptive, last-minute announcements.

But there wasn't any real cause to weep over my spreadsheets. This year, SXSW got surprise two-day visits from Elon Musk and Mark Hamill, as well as the world premiere of "Ready Player One."

Now, there were definitely rumors these things might happen. In Musk's case, he straight up tweeted he'd be coming to SXSW to join friends and " Westworld " creators Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan to show off a video clip they made of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch and Tesla-driving dummy Starman. But he didn't exactly give times and room numbers.

So, it was up to SXSW-goers to speculate, make some calculated bets and keep their eyes peeled. Would Musk crash the "Westworld" panel on Saturday? You bet he did.

Hamill made several appearances tied to the debut of "The Director and the Jedi," a documentary about the making of "The Last Jedi." One daily email from SXSW mentioned that a session where director Rian Johnson was slated to speak would include a "very special guest."

Gee. Wonder who that could be.

Westworld at SXSW: We found Sweetwater and it was exactly as we hoped

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We want to live in our fandoms

When HBO announced it would be building a replica of the town of Sweetwater from its show "Westworld," it didn't take long for SXSW-goers to snap up tickets.

The thing is, part of the trick of the "Westworld" is showing us how awful humans are for visiting a theme park where they can do horrible things to androids, while we sit and enjoy watching a show about those very people doing horrible things do androids.

Granted, in SXSW's version of Sweetwater, there were indeed limits, but the promise of wandering the fictitious streets of the Old West and maybe even playing a round of poker at the Mariposa Saloon and Hotel was just too alluring.

We embraced our black hats.


"Westworld" wasn't the only "activation" -- conference lingo for an offsite event affiliated with the conference -- offering a chance to step inside a show. "Silicon Valley" (also HBO) let folks go inside the Pied Piper house where characters Richard, Gilfoyle, Jared and Dinesh run their problem-prone company. There was a fake version of Gilfoyle's server, their desks surrounded with bottles of various caffeinated drinks, and if that wasn't enough, the activation offered a virtual reality version of the house to wander as well.

And then there was "Ready Player One." Warner Bros and HTC Vive not only brought VR experiences to SXSW, but decked out the inside of Brazos Hall in everything '80s, including a wall of cassette tapes, Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga machines, and a life-size DeLorean.

At SXSW, if you wanted to walk into the world of a beloved show or movie, it wasn't hard to do.

Space is hard

So back to Musk. During a Q&A session on Sunday, he and Nolan talked about just how much Mars is going to need in order to be the kind of place humans can actually live. He said we'll need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints, and it should definitely have really great bars.

There are so many steps to take in order to get there, though, including mastering the art of the cheap and reusable rocket. While Musk said he expects SpaceX's BFR to take some short trips up and down at the beginning of next year, he also made something of a passing reference to how the early trips will be perilous and even deadly.

It's worth it, though, he says. Should World War III descend upon us, space could be human's best chance at survival.

Let's just hope we survive the rocket ride.

Shoot, Earth is hard

SXSW isn't all brand stunts and breakfast tacos. On the last day of SXSW Interactive, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki spoke with Wired editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson about the video service's struggle to figure out how to handle questionable content.

Wojcicki said YouTube would start adding snippets from Wikipedia to videos dealing in conspiracy theories, to which Wikimedia later responded: What? Other sessions included "How the Tech World Aids Russia's War on the West," and Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee spoke, about "hacking our democracy."

There were sessions on racial bias in artificial intelligence and plenty on the #metoo movement. And who could forget Musk saying that AI scares the hell out of him.

Yup, there's a lot to still grapple with here on Earth.

SXSW is cheesy

In the midst of dancing robots on the trade show floor, long lines for mystery guests and entirely too many scarfed tacos from The Peached Tortilla food truck, there shone a beacon of cheesy, cheesy goodness: @WisconsinCheese.

For me, it started during a post-Musk discussion on Twitter about the dairy situation on Mars. The Twitter account for Wisconsin Cheese chimed in at just the right time with puns, gifs and the promise of a 70-foot-long cheese board. We ended up tweeting at each other for a couple days.

And an offer of friendship.

What does cheese have to do with tech? (Seriously, tell me, because I want to write that story.)

But at an event where brands are fighting to be heard above a lot of chatter from people like me making bad jokes and hashtagging everything, @WisconsinCheese saw that good old SXSW buzz. The line to get into their glorious cheese barn was massive.

That's great (or grate, as they'd say) for them, because how else are people going to know you have heaps and heaps of cheese stashed away in a Marriott downtown?

And as for the cheese? Well, it was pretty gouda.

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