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Essay

Unplugged

Without the Grid, Modern Man Is Totally in the Dark

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2003; Page C01

The grid was out there all along, huge, humming and yet forgotten. People on the grid do not think about the grid. That's the essential charm of GridWorld. Technologies start as novelties, as toys and gizmos and contraptions, but when fully mature they become invisible, like the air.

And when they vanish, we gasp.


(Michael Macor -- San Francisco Chronicle Via AP)


_____Blackout Coverage_____
Bandaged Grid Still Vulnerable (The Washington Post, Aug 10, 2004)
Probers Say Blackout in August Was Avoidable (The Washington Post, Nov 20, 2003)
Investigators Pinpoint Cause of August Blackout (The Washington Post, Nov 19, 2003)
Full Coverage
_____News From Canada_____
Glenn Gould: Genius at Work (The Washington Post, Feb 17, 2005)
Oregon Man Arrested in Alleged Web Suicide Plot (The Washington Post, Feb 12, 2005)
Wal-Mart Chief Defends Closing Unionized Store (The Washington Post, Feb 11, 2005)
More News from Canada

"All of a sudden it seemed like we were in a fog," says Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political economist trapped all night in blacked-out Toronto. "As soon as the grid went down, we lost access to information. We didn't have TV, we didn't have the Internet, a lot of cell phones went down. . . . No one really knew what was happening. At least with 9/11 you could turn on the television. It was really disconcerting."

He had predicted it, almost. He'd written an article for Foreign Policy last year about a hypothetical power outage in the summer of 2003, though in his scenario the blackout was caused by terrorists. He warned that the grid had too many vulnerable nodes, or hubs, and that an attack on a single point might lead to the very thing we've been hearing about since Thursday afternoon: cascading failures.

In classic American fashion, we are capable of looking beyond the current crisis -- no matter its severity -- and pondering the much more catastrophic one that we assume will eventually happen. Former energy secretary Bill Richardson said on MSNBC that if this had been terrorism, "the whole country could have been blacked out, because our grids are all interconnected." Fortunately, this time only the financial center of America, huge chunks of the Northeast, Midwest and Canada, and 50 million people were affected.

The experts, at last report, were still trying to find the cause. Lightning? Could it be that darn Niagara Mohawk power grid again? No one could definitively rule out the Blaster worm that plagued computers this week. It is not a banner moment for the experts. They seem to know very little. Perhaps there is an extremely fried squirrel somewhere, sizzling in the weeds beneath a shorted-out transformer.

"You have an increasing level of complexity of systems," says Edward Tenner, a historian of technology and author of "Why Things Bite Back" and "Our Own Devices." "More things are interacting with more other things in ways that may not be easy to model."

He continues:

"This is something that really goes back to Thomas Edison, to his experience as a telegrapher. The word 'bug' really originated among telegraphers. There was a new kind of problem. An artisan could previously find what was wrong with a machine, and fix it, but in this new world of electrical systems, things weren't easy to diagnose."

This crisis has given us a crash course in the grid. We've learned about the Eastern Interconnect and the PJM Interconnection and the 22 nuclear power plants that had to shut down quickly. One has to guess that turning off a nuclear reaction isn't quite like throwing a light switch.

Broadcast news coverage of the greatest blackout in history was particularly fascinating for its low-tech, vintage-1962 quality. The coverage was refreshingly free of the usual slick graphics and dramatic World War IV theme music. On ABC Thursday evening, Ted Koppel, mysteriously unseen, narrated the news while a phone kept ringing distinctly in the background, making it sound like he was simultaneously running a telethon.

Ray Kurzweil, author of "The Age of Spiritual Machines," says the Blackout of 2003 shows that the electrical grid is merely a first Industrial Revolution technology. It's highly centralized. It's old-fashioned. We are now in the midst of the second Industrial Revolution, which favors decentralized technologies such as the Internet.

"The second is based more on emulating the ways of biology, and biology tends to be decentralized. Consider the brain. There's no chief executive officer neuron," says Kurzweil, reached by phone on the comfortably electrified island of Martha's Vineyard.

Beyond the obvious fact that the grid provides the power that drives modern civilization, it also radically reorganizes human society. Specifically, the grid allows wimps to be alpha males. There are tens of millions of men (and women too, but let's not complicate the theory we're working up here) whose social stature is inextricably dependent on consistently available electricity. Men with concave chests and zero muscle tone can plug into the grid and dazzle the world as, say, mergers-and-acquisitions lawyers.


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