11 September, 2003

THE BIG BLACKOUT
Sushma Joshi, The Kathmandu Post

I was in the computer lab of the New School at downtown Manhattan at 4:11pm, August 14, when the lights went out. The noise of two hundred hard drives shivering to a halt was oddly disconcerting. The air-conditioners took a couple more seconds to shut down. The lab, always lit perpetually with fluorescent lights, stocked with about two hundred colorful computers, and humming with unseen machinery, suddenly felt dim, dark, abandoned. I tried to eject my disk, but couldn't. Unlike a Mac, this machine did not have a tiny hole where you could stick the sharp end of a paper clip and manually eject the disk.
"When is the light coming back?" I ask the security guard. The man looks scared as he answers, "I don't know. The lights are out all over Manhattan." That's when the intercom starts to crackle indistinguishably. "Please exit the building immediately!" the jarring voice repeats in an infinite loop.
But we are used to Emergencies in this city by now. We are thinking about terrorist attacks, September 11, Anthrax, Code Orange, and nuclear Armageddon as we head down the stairs. I am thinking about those iodine pills I saw advertised on the Internet - is it iodine or some other chemical that you take after a nuclear attack, I try to remember as I walk out, clutching my waterbottle.
Outside, the sun is blazing and its oppressively hot. As I get to Fifth Avenue, I realize that all buildings have been evacuated. Thousands of office drones you never see from nine to five are outside, dressed in their high heels and suits, chatting and laughing. Its almost a reprieve - the sun is shining, its summertime. Women grab this chance to go shopping from the street vendors, trying on the purple hats and vinyl bags as if they're out on vacation.
I cross the avenue, wondering why some people are crossing the street, and others aren't. When I get to the middle of the road, I realize the traffic lights are dead. "Please!" an agitated young drama queen screams. "Can you wait for the cars to pass?" But everybody else is perfectly calm, both pedestrians and car drivers, as they weave in and out of the throng.
Two million people ride the subway into the city every day, and millions more live in the Island itself. That day, they were all out in the streets. And yet, surprisingly, there was no chaos. People were polite and considerate as they drove and walked, giving way at appropriate moments. The process of gauging when to cross and when to wait for the cars came intuitively.
Throughout the city, I would soon start seeing volunteers who would spontaneously start directing traffic. Some of them would be born naturals. Others, like the Italian couple who blocked off traffic at both ends and were not letting anybody pass through as they tried to figure out what to do, would be gently humored public nuisances.
I started to see people popping out from the manholes in the ground. Later, my roommate would tell me she was one of the people who got stuck in a subway underground. It took her forty minutes to get outside. "It was hot and dark, there were children and old people, there were rats scurrying around in the dark. It was not fun," she summed up. "As soon as the lights went out, I knew it was going to be bad. I thought people would come in with AK-47s, shooting for Osama Bin Laden, or for Christ, or something equally stupid. People! Don't do anything stupid now, I thought."
Millions of commuters were caught in the city, with no means of transportation to get out. The ATM machines were dead. Even if they had money in their pockets, the taxis were charging outrageous amounts to get from one borough to another. Corporate men, dressed in their suits, spent the night in the parks. Tourists who left their possessions inside electronically locked hotel doors spent the night on the pavements.
A mile up, beneath the Empire State building, was the bus-stop. As I got there, I knew I was not getting a ride. The jam-packed buses were driving past the stops. A policeman was explaining to an older couple, "The lights are out in the tri-state areas." It sounded like the blackout was larger than it seemed. I started to walk home.
It took me five hours to get to Queens. Thousands of people, speaking multiple languages, laughed and chatted as they walked across Queensborough bridge, the women with high heels and straight backs, looking like they did this every single day. Dozens caught rides with pickup trucks, waving and cheering like a parade.
Halfway through Northern Boulevard, I saw a crowd holding orange sodas. A van with lettering that said Pakistan-American Friendship Council was parked on the side. What is that van doing out here, I wondered. Do they want to get beaten up? Muslims, and especially the Pakistanis, are the first to get attacked when something unpleasant and extraordinary happens in the US. The van, it turned out, was distributing sodas to the people walking home, a particularly smart PR move under the circumstances. "Yo man, this soda is warm!" a Latino man faked disgust as he drank it up.
At home, I found Matt, my roommate, had lit every single candle he had bought at the store. Having eight santa maria candles at full power on the hottest day in August didn't help. I suddenly realized that Matt had probably never spent a day of his life without electricity. The only other blackout was in 1977, and that had caused riots and looting, and had been an extraordinary event in the history of New York City.
"This happens all the time in Kathmandu, Matt," I say. He couldn't imagine what that must be like. "The lights are out up to the Mid-West, and up to Canada," he tells me. Matt, a jazz musician who spends a significant amount of his time listening to music, playing his saxophone with an electronic counter, playing games at his playstation, and checking his email, suddenly found out what a wired human being he really was. "The plug's been pulled out of my asshole, you know what I mean? What the hell am I going to do now?"
That question of a technology addicted culture suddenly unplugged was in evidence everywhere. At a deeper level was the realization of a culture's unhealthy dependence on just two sources of power: oil and electricity, and how the entire system can come to a complete halt with one simple moment of load-shedding. The US may be the most technologically adept country in the world, but it still has not figured out the basic law of sustainability - the nurturing of diversity, whether in seeds or crops or medicine or sources of power. Just as monoculture of one crop can be wiped out in an instant with one fungal infection, so too the functioning of a technological society can come to a halt with the shutting down of one powergrid.
The blackout of 2003 came to an end as thousands of engineers worked overtime to patch up the grid. The blackout of intelligence caused by the Bush administration will only end when the people of America react to the extent to which "Life has been hell!" in the United States and over the world with the takeover of this particular clique of hawkish individuals. War may boost the stocks of the defense industry, but it does nothing to boost the stocks of any other business in the world. Business, in the end, functions on trust, respect and negotiation - not by bombarding people who disagree "into the Stone Age". And while we are at it, its time to recognize that technologically sophisticated cultures have always underrated the strength of Stone Age cultures - specifically their abilities to withstand a power outage.
The United States fights a bitter and short-sighted war in the Middle East, spending billions on an occupation that hopes to be the ultimate grab for oil. The more smarter move would be to diversify power sources, and to upgrade to technologically sophisticated forms of power like hydrogen that will soon make oil and electricity look as obsolete as Windows 1.1.

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