When the Power Goes Out

When the Power Goes Out

Kurt Cagle 15/04/2018 2

An interesting pattern emerges when you throw a potentially controversial idea out, as I did recently with the article below. I had written that I think that we need to strengthen our "local" networks - energy and information both - by utilizing more of a mesh approach, precisely because the existing (largely centralized) networks are too vulnerable to storms, earthquakes and cascading power failures.

Many people liked the idea. Many pointed out that solar panels in particular wouldn't have survived the storm, until someone pointed out the idea of making such panels detachable and storable in the event of an extreme weather event (which I think makes eminent sense). A few pointed out societal wrinkles (sharing power opens up the commons problem as one example). Others talked about tying in electronic vehicles, the use of Thorium reactors, and other similar ideas - some feasible, some pie in the sky. Most of these fell into the arena of constructive criticism.

Yet there were also the naysayers. The ones who claimed that this was a white privilege issue, or that I had a liberal agenda, or that the existing system was just fine and I should shut up about it, often in fairly hostile terms.

It's worth pointing out here that many people in Florida, Georgia and Texas will be out of power for more than a month. That right now, there are electricians and linemen from most of the southern (and not a few northern) states at work pulling double shifts to get the system up and running again. Because of the nature of these events, there are far too few of them for all the work that's needed. Should a third storm materialize in the Atlantic, this will become even worse.

There is a strong streak of denialism in this country right now. A hostility not only to the use of new technology or new social structures, but even to the suggestion that there are real problems that need to be addressed. And yet, the combined impact of Harvey and Irma alone will be well in excess of a quarter of a trillion dollars. To put that in perspective, if the government wrote a check at the rate of $1 million dollars a day to cover the impact, it would take 650 years before the impacts are mitigated. It will almost certainly trigger a recession in the next few months, as hundreds of thousands of businesses shut their doors, and I fully expect that the reinsurers are already struggling to stay solvent at this point.

Jared Diamond, in his epic work, Collapse, pointed out that when a civilization is in decline, a lot of magical thinking arises. Some of this is, admittedly, an overconfidence in technological solutions, a belief that the magicians will somehow find the elixir that will turn dross to gold. Often what comes out of that is better way to create copper, which may actually be more useful, but is not a magical solution. This is because scientific progress is aimed at uncovering how the world works first, not necessarily at the solution of problems.

I am not a technology booster. I am of the opinion that having a broader set of tools does make it easier to solve problems, though there has to be a balance well before the tool only exists for its own sake - the solution in search of a problem. Nor am I some wild eyed activist, believing that there is some moral karma or vengeful god out to smite the complacent.

Instead, I think that there are many, many signs that the status quo has become unstable. You do not need to believe in climate change to recognize the fact that we are simply more vulnerable today to the effects of extreme weather and similar disasters than we were even fifty years ago. Most people have no more than perhaps a hundred dollars in physical cash available to them at any given time when the power goes out. Their jobs stop, their source of income dries up even if they could spend it, because most businesses cannot operate without power. Food spoils, and getting more food becomes problematic, even impossible. In time, no matter how wealthy they were before, they become refugees.

Our current technological basis is wrong, because at its core is the assumption that the purpose of that technology is to make money, usually by reducing human involvement (and consequently human expense) in any activity. A few people are trying to change that, to use technology as a means to insure the long term health of the society overall, but they are reviled as alarmists, as do-gooders, as intellectual extremists, as socialists or worse. Too many people are invested in the status quo, and when the power goes out, when there are no alternatives because even suggesting them was to suggest that the existing world view is wrong, these same people are the very first ones to complain and the last ones to help.

I am coming to believe that real change does not happen until after things collapse, often at far higher cost and effort than would have been involved otherwise. The necessity of change seems to require, for most people, the total, undeniable destruction of their world view before they recognize the need for change, and for some, even that is no longer enough. Societal collapse does not occur all at once. It occurs one disaster at a time, one hurricane, one drought, one regional recession after another. Perhaps, from the ashes, something new will arise, but the best time to make change, to build a better infrastructure (physical and societally) that can withstand the onslaughts of a hostile world is during rebuilding, while the knowledge of how to do so is still fresh and available, because one day, the rot will become too extreme, and the means to do so will no longer be there.

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  • Karl Gray

    Our policymakers wait for disasters to react. I am sick and tired of power outages.

  • Tim Wood

    Insightful !!!!

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Kurt Cagle

Tech Expert

Kurt is the founder and CEO of Semantical, LLC, a consulting company focusing on enterprise data hubs, metadata management, semantics, and NoSQL systems. He has developed large scale information and data governance strategies for Fortune 500 companies in the health care/insurance sector, media and entertainment, publishing, financial services and logistics arenas, as well as for government agencies in the defense and insurance sector (including the Affordable Care Act). Kurt holds a Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. 

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