On Sunday the National Geographic Channel aired a film purporting to show what might happen if the U.S. suffered a 10-day blackout due to a devastating cyberattack. Shot Cloverfield-style from the perspective of characters in the action, "American Blackout" told the story of a bunch of college kids stuck in an elevator for days, a "prepper" family with a secret bunker in Colorado, and a pair of privileged city-slickers on the 46th floor of an apartment building. Switch writers Brian Fung and Andrea Peterson watched the film at a recent screening -- here's what they thought.
Andrea: I was disappointed by the lack of any sort of information about what sort of cyberattack may have caused it. I didn't really expect them to go into any sort of technical details, but it would've been nice if it was more than just newscasters exclaiming, "we have been struck by a devastating cyberattack!"
Brian: Well, once the attack had happened it kind of stopped mattering, I thought. Like, maybe they'll do a sequel where they show the engineers trying to figure it out, but for the moment it was just interesting to see how the filmmakers thought everything would unfold — and importantly, in what order. I was kind of surprised that water didn't start becoming an issue until the 6th or 7th day (I could be remembering this wrong).
Andrea: I think you're remembering it right -- except for the people trapped in the elevator. It became a problem for them quickly. ... I just didn't buy their story as much as the other narrative arcs, honestly. It was maybe compelling, but also completely unrealistic. More realistic? Them giving up and jumping off the roof of the building out of desperation, if they had even gotten that far. Maybe a little too dark there.
Brian: Let's talk about the kid who wandered around on the streets at night with his camera. I forget his name. The one whose mom was a nurse?
Andrea: Yeah, that kid was annoying, too. But it was interesting how they used him to paint a really dark picture of a powerless America.
Brian: I think the part where he just goes home because he isn't sure where else to go is probably how a lot of people would react.
Andrea: I agree. They went to where they would feel safest, which is often the place they know best. We saw that happen a bit with Katrina to some negative affect — stories of people unwilling to abandon their safe havens.
Brian: But as we saw with a lot of different vignettes, that was probably the worst decision any of them could have made. There wasn't enough food or water in those places to sustain them long enough for the power to come on. Though I suppose in terms of safety, some of those places — like the apartment on the 46th floor — would have been good places to hide out.
Andrea: In their defense, I don't think it was ever clear just how long the outage was going to go on. Early on, many were just assuming it would be a day or so.
Brian: Right. I think that would be the scariest part — not knowing how long you'd have to plan for.
Andrea: And I do think that was fairly realistic.
Brian: Like, do you grab the birdseed from the supermarket because you don't know if the outage will last for longer than human food supplies will? I was actually thinking about this yesterday at Safeway. What would happen if the outage happened right then and there?
Andrea: Did you grab the birdseed?
Andrea: Because if you didn't, clearly the movie didn't scare you enough.
Brian: You're right. I should've just left without paying. Because who knows? A cyberattack could knock out our credit card network!
Andrea: I personally keep probably enough food to get me through roughly a 10-day period if I was careful with rationing. But that's just because I tend to buy in bulk for budgetary reasons, and that's really a luxury many Americans cannot afford.
Brian: When the blackout hits, I'm heading to your house first.
Andrea: There are a lot of food insecure people in America. I think it's fair to say that having our electric grid taken out would have a really devastating affect on Americans who rely on public assistance for many of their meals, for example. You assume that there would be emergency services that would try to step in, but that really requires an amazing amount of coordination that would be impeded by a lack of electricity.
Brian: I forget who was saying this, but we had a post (
I think on Wonkblog recently It was actually over at The Atlantic) that was talking about the Obamacare launch and how the Web site was most people's first encounter with a kind of bureaucracy that typically only low-income Americans ever have to deal with. I think both that experience and the movie kind of highlight how important having a functioning government really matters. The private sector just totally fell apart when the electricity went.
Andrea: Hey, now -- it didn't entirely fall apart. What about those enterprising entrepreneurs charging $40 for a gallon of water?
Brian: Well, that speaks to the point about planning — $40 in cash isn't going to get you far in a blackout that lasts a week and a half, let alone a month. Would it have been smarter of the shopkeeper to barter for goods that he could have used himself?
Andrea: Absolutely. ... I think they gave the public a little less credit than they deserve.
Brian: During the panel discussion after the screening there was some talk about New York and how during the 2003 blackout everyone was perfectly reasonable to each other. There's some merit to the idea that if enough of a community already exists, its resilience should help it endure a crisis.
Andrea: Yeah -- and I think they showed a little bit of that in the immediate few days of the blackout in the film -- showing BBQs, etc.
Brian: Oh, no, I disagree on the BBQs.
Andrea: Oh really?
Brian: I think that was basically just an establishing scene to show how epically shortsighted everyone would later turn out to be. Rearranging deck chairs, etc.
Andrea: Ok, I see that interpretation. But, they probably did really need to get rid of all that frozen meat. And why not do it as a neighborhood? And I think we're missing a major question point here: Would a real outage of this magnitude happen?
Brian: I think it's pretty unlikely. Of the industries that could be affected by a cyberattack, I think the utility industry is probably the most aware of the danger.
Andrea: Yes. And I just cannot imagine there being a nationwide outage -- maybe some localized systems that were unprepared, but the way it played out in the film seemed especially farfetched. Don't get me wrong, it was entertaining. But I think that was the real extent of its value.
Brian: Speak for yourself. Excuse me while I go buy a crovel.