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The Killer App of Tech Conferences: Gurus

According to Wikipedia, a guru is "one who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom and authority in a certain area, and who uses it to guide others (teacher). Other forms of manifestation of this principle also include parents, school teachers...
March 22, 2011, 8:41pm

Above, a pedicab interview about gurus with some sort of guru.

According to Wikipedia, a guru is “one who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom and authority in a certain area, and who uses it to guide others (teacher). Other forms of manifestation of this principle also include parents, school teachers, non-human objects (books) and even one’s own intellectual discipline.” (In many ways Wikipedia is, itself a kind of guru, isn’t it?)

In Western usage – and in the context of tech gatherings like last week’s South by Southwest Interactive conference – “guru” now includes anyone who acquires followers, though not necessarily through an established school of philosophy or religion. (See Twitter.) At SXSW, the secular meaning of guru is taken to an extreme: anyone with a glossy hardcover, keynote, or strategy for something is bestowed with de facto guru status.

During the interactive portion of the SXSW festival, I was inundated by requests to see things in a certain light, try game-changing apps and to spread the word about various crap by gurus of all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the influence of a guru could be felt simply by being in the same building, or being in the presence of their ideas. It was hard to go anywhere without hearing the names, names like Kawasaki and Vaynerchuk, Sorgatz and Schwartz, Scoble and O’Reilly, spoken with a kind of mystical delicacy.

There was, fortunately, at least one event dedicated to dissecting the cult of the tech guru, a presentation about Steve Jobs and the rise of the Techno-Priests by a consultant named Shane Kempton. Though Kempton’s not a guru himself, a Google search for his name takes you to the page of a business guru with the same name. The guru’s bio reveals him to be passionate about life and the people in it, but, in typical guru fashion, not very skilled at grammar or originality. His motto: “Build a life by design & not just accept the default option.” His obsession: “Help others build a life of their design & not just accept the default option.” His desire: “to hang out with others who think the same way. Who’s in?”

There was more guru self-awareness to be found at SXSW. Kumare, a real fake guru who made a fascinating documentary that premiered at the festival about becoming a religious guru, even wandered around downtown in robes, handing out fake beards in an attempt to teach the lesson that we are all our own gurus. He was also, like a true guru, promoting his own film.

I’m glad that my first South by Southwest experience was so packed with gurus. Because, despite reminding me that most contemporary tech-world gurus are really just new age-y salesmen, it gave me a taste of what it feels like to be in a week-long Christopher Guest movie.