On Sunday the power went out, and it was so great.
All sorts of whirring and buzzing, which I had not really been aware of, stopped. My drapes were open, and the sudden disappearance of artificial light made the blue, sunny day outside extremely obvious.
I had forgotten about outside. Suddenly listless, I figured I’d go out for a minute and at least see if it was the whole world that had ground to a halt or just the inside of my apartment. I put my hat and shoes on, momentarily surprised that they still worked fine.
The outside world was the same as I remembered it. The world hadn’t shut off, it was still running. The familiar clichés of “outside” were all there: people walking, birds chirping from somewhere I couldn’t see, signs, overhead wires, buildings, clouds, all playing out over an orderly quilt of concrete and grass, and all of it underscored by countless layers of droning internal combustion engines. No stillness here.
I probably spent less than two minutes out there before I realized that I only went outside to make sure the world hadn’t ended. That mission accomplished, I went back inside. I sat in the weird quiet for a long half-minute and then the power came back on. The computer fan roared to life. The fridge resumed its stubborn hum. Whatever unidentifiable rumblings, hisses and buzzes that normally go in on this building — there are probably dozens going at any one time — jumped back into my head like they barely left.
Six weeks earlier I’m sitting with a couple of friends on someone’s deck having a beer on what we all inwardly recognize is the First Real Nice Day of the year. The conversation had petered out naturally for the moment, which is fine, because there is absolutely nothing missing. One of us is probably about to say “Isn’t this nice?” when a lawnmower explodes into life on the other side of the fence.
It’s at these sorts of moments when I begin to wonder when we as a society decided that as long as there’s something we want to do, it’s perfectly reasonable to fire up a deafening machine in order to do it faster or more easily.
I’m not making a moral judgment here. I contribute all sorts of buzzes and rumbles of my own. I’m just wondering aloud how it happened that we got so noisy, and so casual about that noise.
I’m sure the first people to witness a demonstration of the motor-car were quite thrilled at the possibilities it would provide over their current lives. The horrendous noise it made was a negligible price to pay for the wonder of a carriage with a power source that doesn’t go lame, need to sleep, or defecate six feet from your face while you’re driving.
We never decide things like that, I suppose, we just get dazzled by the upsides and quickly become accustomed to them. Attachments form and we tend to downplay the costs, regarding them as thereafter “fixed” in the same way we really believe we cannot live without a car, smart phone, or internet connection as soon as we have one.
I’ve been known to complain about crows waking me up while I’m camping, but if I bet if birds were endowed with the same sensitivity to irritation we humans enjoy, they’d probably always be thinking about what a damn racket we make all the time. But I suppose they could easily get lost if it really got to them.
It’s not so easy for us. A human — an animal that is both irritated by these bloody rackets and is also dependent on making them — would have to try much harder to get away.
One summer Saturday a friend and I decided to drive as far as we had to to get out of earshot of civilization. We quickly realized it was effectively impossible to do in a single day, so we pulled over in a field and listened to Pink Floyd instead.
If you ever actually try transport yourself to a place where you cannot hear an internal combustion engine at all, you have to go quite a distance from civilization (which is remarkably difficult where most of us live) then shut off the engine you brought with you. It would have to be an off-road vehicle, because where there are roads there are other engines. But no matter what you do you’ll still probably hear that ubiquitous sky-wide echo of a truck somewhere on some section road. Somewhere.
What you’ll probably need to do, if you’re determined not to let mechanical explosions constitute the background chorus to your life, is to find another, more pleasant noise that drowns it out. The ocean works brilliantly, if you’ve got one. If not, there’s always the radio or television. Or you can whip out a black rectangle and poke at it to distract you, if you have one of those. “Getting away from it all,” when we do manage to feel like we’ve done that, tends to be more of a mental departure than a physical one.
So I guess we’ve gone and done it now. Just by embracing technologies as they’ve come along year after year, we’ve made ourselves inextricable from them. Does that mean we’re cyborgs? Already? We don’t even have flying cars yet.
When the power goes out for good
James Burke paints a sobering picture of the danger we create with our technological dependencies in his 1978 series Connections using a nearly perfect example: an elevator.
Without really thinking about it, we get in a steel box and a door closes automatically behind us. There are buttons that we expect will control this thing and open the door when we want to get out. There’s probably a trap door for emergencies, but that is certainly not on our minds.
Until the power goes out and the box whines to a halt. The door won’t open. Where is the exit again? Above your head somewhere, like in the movies?
…and even in this situation, closed in, with an escape route that we can’t handle… we simply strike a light, and if we find an emergency button, absolutely great. We sit back and wait for help to come. We wait for technology to come back and save our lives. Because it’s inconceivable that it won’t. Isn’t it?
The power going out in my apartment was refreshing for that few moments only because I knew it was coming back. There was never any question about that. It’s incredible, the confidence I have in the power coming back on. I have more confidence in the power coming back on than I do in my promise to myself to go running three mornings a week.
What happens when the power doesn’t come back on? In actual disaster scenarios, technological societies break down very quickly. No power, no communication. No communication, no organization. No policing, no accountability. No rules, no rights. Welcome back to the animal kingdom, I hope you’re ready.
If you knew the power wasn’t coming back on, where would you go? Everything we use is plugged in. We need food, and who among us has the capacity to feed ourselves without electric power?
How long would your current house be a safe place to stay? You’d have to get down to the store and get looting before everyone else does, for starters. Then board things up and arm yourself, or get out. Life would get grim fast, and I don’t really want to think about it.
So I’ll take these little unexpected breaks from the refrigerator hum as they come, a few times a year, and I hope I don’t forget that I don’t really want to get away from civilization.
But I’m all for push-mowers. That’s a step back I can handle.
Photo by FunM3D