I’m stuck. I don’t know whether to go watch robot dogs play soccer, attend a lecture on how online games change your brain chemistry, share stories of famous Social Media #Fails like Nestle’s response to Greenpeace’s Kit-Kat campaign, or catch a workshop in iPad app design.
I’m at South by Southwest (SXSW), the Geek Glastonbury, the Mecca of Social Media, the Davos of Digital, the Haight Ashbury of Hashtags. It’s also one of the places where the fate of a warming world, ever hungrier for the electricity to power its status updates, will be decided.
Every year here in Austin, Texas, adjacent to a world-class film festival and a world-class music festival, a six-day interactive festival draws digital creatives, software engineers, designers, social media mavens, angel investors, content wranglers, journalists, and some of the most competitive and innovative entrepreneurs on the planet.
I’m here, along with a handful of folks from Oxfam, PETA, Rainforest Action Network, Amnesty, WWF, and a dozen other charities and activist groups, to learn what new tools of communication and interaction are coming down the pipe, what’s new in ways of forming social bonds through digital bits, and consider how we can use them to reach more people, set off more sparks of awareness, and light more brushfires under the butts of governments and corporations that don’t walk lightly on the Earth.
But there’s also a voyeuristic element that I’ve learned to appreciate in 5 years of being an eco-petunia in this dot com onion patch: you can see pretty far out over the horizon here, because the people who walk these halls have a handy trick for predicting the future: they invent it.
Twitter debuted here in 2006. Kindled by big screens running hashtag searches in each of the venues, it spread through the conference so fast it singed our eyebrows. It was breathtaking, and a bit scary, to open an account and find the SXSW hive mind was ALIVE on thousands of screens and devices. Invisible conversations were taking place in packed auditoriums, silently cheering, booing, and debating with points that speakers were making from the stage. Mediocre panels emptied as rumors rode electrons through the ether of what was rawking in the next room. Parties and meetups and commerce and swag-trade were busting out like popcorn. It was as if this gathering had evolved, overnight, an entirely new nervous system.
But while this is a place of happy mythologies in which beautiful debutant applications walk down the velvet staircase to awed appreciation, and ingénue content gets discovered at the soda fountain and makes it big, there’s a few distopic voices rumbling warnings out across the crowd. It’s unsettling, like distant thunder at a picnic.
It’s no coincidence that one of the founding titans of this festival is a futurist and science fiction writer, Bruce Sterling. Sterling was one of the first generation Digirati, a leading light at The Well, an early text-only watering hole back when portable PCs were the size of sewing machines and an internet connection was negotiated through high-pitched call-and-response audio symphonies conducted through suction cups placed over the mouth and earpiece of a wire-tethered telephone.
Sterling imagines the future for a living. He and Jon Lebkowsky and a handful of others had the vision to realise these new-fangled computer devices and the web that allowed them to share white pages with black text and blue hyperlinks around the world might just change society profoundly some day, and there ought to be a place to talk about what that future might look like.
Sterling speaks here every year, and amidst the youthful exuberance, the impossible wealth, the wide-eyed gaze out over horizons through rose-tinted glasses, he speaks the unpopular truths that his historical shadow, Cassandra the sooth-sayer, was once castigated for.
Last year, he suggested that those who see the future have only a gift for seeing what others don’t see in the present.
“I hear pundits ask ‘Gee what would an extended depression where the means of production collapsed look like?’ Well it looks like Detroit.
Or ‘What would an environmental crisis look like, in which extreme weather events were ravishing our cities due to global warming?’ It looks like post-Katrina New Orleans.
The problems that we see today, that we have not dealt with, are going to fester and we’re going to get excoriated for them.”
Those who invent the future have a responsibility for what that future’s going to look like. And for the people here in Austin, that future right now is bright with electricity. Unfortunately, it’s also dark with coal soot.
The IT industry that fuels our Facebook Likes, our blogs and tweets is set to contribute 15% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2020. Already, today, the internet consumes so much electricity that, were it a country, it would be the fifth largest in the world. The global warming to which it contributes costs 300,000 lives every year. Companies like Google are making pioneer investments in renewable energy, and across the IT sector there’s excitement about smart grids and other economic opportunities as we contemplate what a world without fossil fuels might look like.
So when Facebook decided to build two shiny new data centres fueled largely by dirty old coal, we despaired. We expect a cool, cutting edge company to follow a better path than riding shotgun down a coal chute.
We’ve put out a challenge to the amazing people at Facebook, some of them here in Austin: publicly commit to a timeline phasing out dirty electricity sources (coal and nukes) and adopt a company wide renewable energy target in 2011.
Why do we highlight Facebook? Because within the industry, they have transformative powers. These are the people who are reinventing the way we make and maintain friends, people who are reinventing the way revolutions are expressed, people who are reinventing the nature of our world. People who have the power to reinvent the way we create and consume electricity, and help turn a distopic nightmare of destabilizing climate chaos into a bright green future with more jobs, cleaner air, and enough food and water to keep our world alive.
Help tell Facebook, here at SXSW and at the Greenpeace Unfriend Coal page, that a renewable energy future is a vision that we Like, and want to Share.
P.S. If you work for Facebook and are at SXSW, drop me a line at brianfit58-AT-gmail.com or @brianfit at twitter to talk about how we can advocate inside Facebook for support for renewable energy. If you’re a blogger at SXSW and you want to cover this issue, drop me a line and get some materials (and Swag!)