SXSWi: What Digital Can't Do

3_IMG_0168.jpgThere's no doubt that SXSW is the best tech party of the year. When you mix geeks, panels, a sense of technical invincibility, music and beer, well, you can't help but feel like technology can solve any problem.

Then, there's an earthquake.

On Friday, just as the crowd was flying into Austin, a massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake occurred near the northeastern coast of Japan. Then, devastating tsunami waves came ashore.

For the social media crowd, there was an opportunity to do what they do best: mobilize and communicate. They'd done it before. With Haiti, with New Orleans.

As NPR's Andy Carvin has explained, in the past you could donate blood, or money. But now, you can donate information. After Hurricane Katrina, projects like PeopleFinder gave the tech crowd reason to be proud.

And the SXSW community was mobilized to help.

But by Sunday night the emerging crisis at Fukushima's nuclear power plant was beginning to hang over the event. The Twitter feed on my iPhone was 80 percent party and panel information, 20 percent notes about hydrogen explosions and exposed fuel rods.

For a tech community feeling a sense of pride in the mobilization of citizens in Egypt, the limits of what can be done with smartphones and laptops began to replace empowerment with a feeling of helplessness.

"What can we do?" asked a young social media strategist I shared a pedicab with late that night. Demi and Ashton Kutcher had been at the party we had just left. The streets were alive with the sound of music, and free food trucks kept the crowds satiated. Foursquare messages kept the mobile party scene on the move. Apple had built a pop-up store to sell iPads. But the chips in that iPad came from Japan. And events in Japan were going to impact us all. Our environment, our friends, our energy future, our business.

2_IMG_0163.jpgDonating to earthquake relief was important, but given the emerging size of the disaster, inconsequential.

By Monday, the SXSW crowd was in the dark. Social media has a way of filtering out the mainstream media noise. In the conference center there was no TV -- just software and brands, free shirts and stickers.

We'd reached the limits, it seemed, of what technology could do. Faced with a situation that was created by the physical world, and a series of consequences that, in hindsight, seemed so inevitable. "Why did the Japanese put their nuclear power plants so near the coastline!!!" asked one Huffington Post commentator. "Hmm, maybe for water to cool them" another responded.

By Monday night, the digital youth were dancing and drinking away whatever fears they may have had. A massive party with rap artist Big Boi was thundering away, with thousands of dancing digerati at the massive and abandoned Seahorn Power Plant.

Standing under the four smoke stacks, lit up bright blue to mark the festivities, I couldn't stop myself from thinking: "They're dancing while Rome burns."

How far away is Japan, really, in this new, connected, always-on world? We're about to find out.

Images: Steven Rosenbaum.