Last week I spoke at the renowned South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. SXSW, as it is usually written, began as a music, and then film, festival and is one of the most “happening” events on the planet. Recently, a third component joined film and music: “Interactives.” This means cyber-stuff and all that 21st-century jazz. Although I have a lifelong terror and ineptness in this arena, I accepted a surprise invitation to speak at an “interactives” panel, and headed for sunny Texas, optimistic I would feel right at home.

My optimism sprang from several things. First, the invitation came from a fellow Islander: novelist and unsung genius John Sundman. We’d met in the dog park a couple years back — the classic start of many Vineyard friendships — and since he owns a Lab, I trust him. If he thought I’d be okay, then of course I would. (The panel was about the future of the novel in an era of Brave New World-ness; I qualified because I write for a project called The Mongoliad, a rip-roaring collectively-written online experiment in storytelling in the form of a historical-adventure-cyber-novel. Our initial marketing campaign read: “Getting Medieval on Your Apps” and depicted a segment of the Bayeux Tapestry altered to show a soldier reading The Mongoliad on an iPad.)

My optimism increased on arrival, for Austin in March resembles Martha’s Vineyard in August. The weather is heavenly, the crowds enormous, and there are far too many cultural offerings to take it all in. There is live music everywhere, constantly, from street corners to major venues; there are artisans booths all over the place; there are films playing from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. in a dozen venues; there are HUGE parties nightly — perhaps the real reason people come to SXSW. Alright, yes, that’s a bit more than we have going on here, even in August, but the temporary-embarrassment-of-riches felt familiar.

The vibe of downtown Austin was also familiar: progressive, do-good-while-enjoying-your-life-but-don’t-tell-ME-how-to-live. If the Vineyard were a city in Texas, it would be Austin.

Except for all that techno-cyber-computery stuff.

That’s where the parallel broke down. It’s also where I myself came close to breaking down.

All of these folks wandering around in hyper-casual faded T-shirts’s and jeans, looking and acting like Vineyarders, were all, all!, techno-savvy in a way I was not, nor am ever likely to be. Even the one panhandler I encountered wanted money to buy an iPad 2. Cyber-smart Mr. Sundman — who on the Vineyard is nearly his own subculture — is par for the course at SXSW Interactives. There are thousands of Sundmans, and lo, there I was among them, and I didn’t even know how to tweet from my phone! That’s like not knowing how to pronounce “quahaug.” I reminded myself of people who say they “grew up on Martha’s Vineyard” because their families summered here once. I was the only non-geek in all of downtown Austin — and yet I was speaking on an “interactives” panel. I was a fake. I was a technophobe, and stubbornly proud of it. There were hundreds of presentations about the need to use “social media” to engage in “interactivity” no matter one’s vocation: software designer, chef, artist, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, writer. All writers. Fiction writers!

Absolutely not, I grumped to myself. No way am I going to drink that Kool-Aid. I am a respectably-published novelist. Leave me and my readers out of this Brave New World stuff; it is artificial, alien and ignoble. (Yes, okay, I am on Facebook, but I’ve shuddered apologetically whenever I’ve “used it as an author.”)

Then I attended a discussion about “the future of storytelling.” I took my seat with a chip already on my shoulder. I knew I would not like what I was about to hear: that to maintain a livelihood as a creator and purveyor of tales, I would have to learn to “be transmedia.” This struck me as irritatingly technology-for-technology’s-sake, at the expense of the soul.

The panel started.

The moderator began with the assertion that “interactive” storytelling is the purest form of storytelling; it is a natural, organic impulse, written into our DNA. As children, we naturally expect it — in fact, demand it: “But WHY did the mommy pig throw the Three Little Pigs out of the house? What did the straw-house smell like? What did the huffing and puffing sound like?” The audience asks; the storyteller answers. From childhood on, we want the extras: In modern parlance, we want to Google the Three Little Pigs, read the Big Bad Wolf’s Wikipedia entry, follow Red Riding Hood’s Twitter feed with vicarious paranoia as she begins to suspect something might be up with Grandma.

So all the stuff I turned my nose up at? It’s not some Brave New World gimmick. It’s human nature. It’s old as Peaked Hill. It happens around bonfires on the beach as surely as it happens in “interactives” conference rooms.

Kool-Aid is so refreshing in the heat of Austin, Texas.

Nicole Galland’s most recent book is Crossed: A Tale of the Fourth Crusade. To be interactive with her, check out her blog at, tweet her at ndgalland, or visit Or say hi when you see her on the street.