This year finally I went to the Geek shindig called South by South West in Austin, Texas.
I initially stayed in Allen with friends as close as family before a drive down to Austin for the conference. The days before I travelled to the states I had been closely monitoring news of the varied Arab uprising, assorted stories of governmental change, crackdown and violence from Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia. Most of this I read through first person blogs, tweets and audio updates as well as some news websites.
The morning before we left to drive to Austin, the news broke of the earthquake in Japan and following Tsunami. We stood still in front of a television showing recordings made by people using mobile phones and portable cameras. the level of the catastrophe was barely believable.
There were things to do, bags to pack, a car to load and a friend to collect along the way, then a four hour drive. We checked into the hotel and turned on CNN again. More news from Japan, a large TV sceen showing pictures of people and houses that looked Lilliputian in the wake of a slow and deliberate moving wave of destruction. There was little we could say to each other that might sum up a reaction to that level of tragedy. The headlines shifted and updates from Libya showed angry and frightened people in the streets where they live. It seemed incomparable, the state of human activity on the news. The sadness that comes with seeing people like you fighting for their beliefs, people like your friends being shot at.
But there were still things to do. We watched the news in bed and fell asleep to headlines. The next day was busier than the first at the conference in a wired environment.
Austin seemed to be awash in a supportive net of wifi, communications were easy enough, we were all in touch, all checked in to various locations, all aware of where our friends were in the local neighbourhood and looking forward to catching up over an evening meal to share our day of lectures, panels, information. I checked the news headlines here and there from news sites, but there was little need to seek out a news website, my Twitter stream was flowing with Arabic and English updates about Libya as well as various quotes and statistics about the nuclear reactors in Japan.
In the evening we went back to the hotel and watched the news. Japan, to a convention of people who love technology, used to mean maybe Tokyo. A neon Mecca of lights and electronic play things, high on the list of geek destinations. What we were seeing was images of normal life torn asunder. Recognisable shapes of homes and lives rearranged by a force almost unimaginable.
We were up early the next morning with the news on again, watching experts talk about nuclear reactors, overheating and evacuation. We went on to the conference again, the sun was shining, people made new friends and tried new things. Online friends met in real life and got to see how we really are.
For all the chatter and flow of conversation face to face, I was finding it hard to do what most would do naturally at a place like SXSW – answer that familiar question on Twitter “What’s happening?”
What was happening in front of me was a gleeful celebration of technology and innovation. What was happening in my mind and in my hand on a portable device, was a constant stream of horrifying news. People in pain.
Many people reading this will be accustomed to a form of digital shadow we now carry around with us, an overlay to our real surroundings. You know where you are, you see what is happening around you, but now you may also be constantly aware of what your friends are up to as well and beyond that, what the people you do not know are doing too. They speak the same digital language as you, so you easily see their tone, activities and sometimes uploaded images, brought to you wherever you sit or stand.
I had gone to the conference to try and report back a live stream of things others might want to celebrate and enjoy if they were not in the same place as me. Some of this is my job, most of it is now a habit. But how funny did I find it to upload silly pictures when other were uploading images of their world on fire?
I did update, I did post some images, but I felt dismayed at the idea of throwing a geek party in my live stream, ashamed sort of. I didn’t post as much as I thought I might.
We know this sort of plane will come where the world can really be so seamlessly connected. Maybe until now I had considered it to be information. As a reporter talking to people around the world about their lives I am used to distancing myself a little, it’s not my story and it’s my job to pass it on. But with that seamless connection of information comes a sense of humanity and feeling. Sorrow, grief, loss at this time spread world wide with anger and outrage. This is part of the connections we make online.
In other parts of the web maybe people were up to the usual things, scrapping, flirting, talking about celebrities, TV shows, comic books anything and everything. Maybe my global frequency was an echo chamber repeating the news headlines rather than mixing in more of other daily lives elsewhere. I’ve been known to purse my lips at a flippant update when I’ve had my head in news coverage that would not get an 18 rating. I’ve also been known to ignore the daily struggles of friends because I thought the story I was following put a much bigger perspective on things, making their problems seem insignificant in comparison. What would I care that your boyfriend was mean when I spent the day watching bodies line up on someone’s YouTube footage?
I realise that this post sounds somewhat hyperbolic, I’ve thought over days since I came back from the States about how I wanted to write it and it still doesn’t sound quite right, but it’s on my mind. What is our emotional responsibility now that we are all connected?
Though you grieve with close friends when they lose a family member, what is your level of empathy to a enormous event that used to be miles away over a television news broadcast and now you carry in your pocket, revealed through small windows over weeks?
It’s a question really. I have not suffered, this is not a woe-is-me tale of a happy event changed by global headlines and I am not personally upset by my own circumstances. But I wonder at the closeness of a digital world, the sinking in a heart when a reporter I never knew but read each day was shot, when I hear from women my age who are frightened or families like mine elsewhere who had their lives washed away. It’s just a lot closer now and I wonder how we will all feel as the proximity of these connections continues to grow nearer. What is appropriate?