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Our Reliance on Electricity

Jennifer Lieberman, author of Power Lines shares with us some thoughts on our dependency on electricity and what it means in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

I live in Jacksonville, Florida. As you may have seen on the news, my home city—and my entire state—was devastated by Hurricane Irma. While we fared better than the people living in St. Martin, Antigua, Barbuda, and the British Virgin Islands, many of us shared a disorienting and potentially dangerous experience as we stayed in place or returned home after evacuation: widespread power outages. Millions of people were in the dark. Lights are slowly blinking on now, several days after the storm has dissipated.

As disaster historian Scott Knowles once said: “After disaster we feel compelled to learn something. That's sensible. So then, why do we learn so little?” There are a number of important lessons we could and should learn from these events. I am a specialist in the history of electricity, and my personal story illustrates one of the lessons we could learn from the blackouts that attend these disasters.

I do not live in an evacuation zone, so I stayed home as the storm descended. After the power went out, we still hit switches as we wandered between dim rooms. It was a reflex. We joked about it.

My family was prepared for a few days without power. It felt like camping. We rationed our water and ate junk food. Once it was safe to venture outside, we were heartened to find what Fred Rogers called “the helpers.” A food truck opened, and one friend saw someone pay with a hundred-dollar bill so that the proprietors could feed anyone who needed a meal. Acquaintances showed up with chainsaws and helped one another clear trees from the road. In the parts of my city that were not impassably flooded, we all walked around to assess the damage and to be kind when we could be.

As more time passes without power, the heat becomes more dangerous for elderly people, people with serious illnesses, and pets. We feel helpless, angry. The sense of community might dwindle. We still hit our functionless switches as we walked around our homes. This mindless behavior reminds me of how historian Paul N. Edwards defined infrastructures like our power grid: they are “largely responsible for ... the feeling that things work, and will go on working, without the need for thought or action on the part of users beyond paying the monthly bills.” We take these systems for granted until they fail. When the power goes out, we realize how it shapes our lives. We also realize how much work it takes to keep the power on.

On Monday morning, as friends and I meandered through the city, electricians arrived wearing reflective vests and serious expressions. They started making repairs. These are the maintainers who keep these systems running invisibly when there is no disaster. Most Americans only pay attention to them on weeks like this one. And these technicians are only a small part of the network that keeps our networks operational: unseen are the dispatchers, the fleet managers, the mechanics who keep the fleets in-tact, people taking calls and keeping websites from crashing, and so forth. It is a complicated, constant undertaking to keep infrastructures working or to bring them back online after they fail.

Blackouts demonstrate how much we rely on electricity—and on one another. We need to touch base with loved ones. We want to make sure our neighbors are safe. We realize that our lives are shaped by people we may not know, who will work through the night so that we can cool and light our homes.

Once the power comes back on, if our homes are relatively undamaged, the most fortunate among us retreat into old ways. Everything is atomized again, from the hyper-targeted ads on our Facebook pages to the eerily specific recommendations that Netflix makes. While we still reel from the effects of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, before we slide back into these habits, I hope that we can acknowledge the significance of our often-invisible inter-reliance. Much-needed donations to charitable organizations honor that interrelationship, but we can do more. We can challenge ourselves to pay attention to our dependencies, even when our infrastructures are designed to help us forget them.

In American culture, the word dependence carries negative connotations. Many use it derisively to describe impoverished or disabled people, as if upper-class and able-bodied people survive entirely on their own, without the strength conferred by social ties and without the maintainers who keep our sociotechnical systems working. Shattering that myth might change the way we understand disasters—and the way we understand ourselves and one another in the calm moments, after those disasters are too-quickly forgotten.

As we rebuild, we should recognize that we will never create infrastructures that will make us invulnerable, but that we can change the way we think about these systems. The power grid does not have to confer the false sense of consumerist security that Edwards described. As I discuss in my book, Power Lines, people build and maintain these systems, and people can change the way they work and the way users interact with them. 

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The MIT PressLog is the official blog of MIT Press. Founded in 2005, the Log chronicles news about MIT Press authors and books. The MIT PressLog also serves as forum for our authors to discuss issues related to their books and scholarship. Views expressed by guest contributors to the blog do not necessarily represent those of MIT Press.