Thursday, March 17, 2011

Go back to go forward

Technology isn’t perfect or indestructible. Despite all our progress, all our moves to make the world and the way it functions better, our technological infrastructure is vulnerable, and society can collapse with it. A disaster or simple accident can rupture the techno bubble so many of us are used to living in, or we may make choices to do so temporarily or permanently.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen how disasters like flooding, cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis can change everything, bursting our techno bubble and bringing us back to an almost pre-industrial level. Fortunately, most of us will never experience that sort of upheaval, and we probably can’t even really fully comprehend what it would feel like to go through it—we are very, very lucky.

Fortunately, simple accidents that cut off our power, water, and so on, are the worst technological failings most of us will experience. We once had a possum knock out our power (seriously) when it got into a transformer and, as its last act of life, shorted it out, cutting off power to hundreds of houses. A car crashing into a power pole or transformer can do the same thing. A few years ago, Auckland’s CBD was without power for days when the main power cable into the city centre failed.

Less dramatic accidents, like someone digging in the wrong place, can sever phone lines or water mains. Even routine work can temporarily cut us off from basic services like water, as we experienced earlier this week when we lost water in the morning while crews worked on upgrades on the street.

Then there are the disruptions we choose, like going on holiday—or moving permanently—to a remote location with no phones or electricity. Or, as we’re doing right now, when we change services like Internet Service Providers, leading to inevitable disruption (in our case, we’ve been cut-off from the Internet for about 30 hours as I write this).

But disruptions caused by accidents, routine work or choice are usually temporary and don’t last long. After having our settled lives knocked a little askew, we can settle back into our comfortable routines fairly quickly.

It’s not so quick after a disaster, and, of course, and the bigger the disaster, the bigger and more long-lived the disruptions. For many, basic services—power, water, sewerage, phone—are restored within days or weeks, but full recovery can take months or years. I wonder if that period becomes a new sort of settled reality, or if the people still feel sort of disoriented in their lives until recovery is complete. I hope I never find out from personal experience.

Obviously I’m not suggesting there’s even the tiniest bit of equivalence between temporary interruptions, like to water or Internet service, and disasters. But those petty annoyances are as bad as it gets in normal life. Maybe they can help us remember that, and be grateful for what we have—and that we’re not victims of disaster. Maybe those minor inconveniences can even motivate folks to do what they can to help disaster victims. Because one day it could be us, wishing all we were facing was disruption caused by a nosy possum.

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