Tech has long been held up as the great disintermediator and a panacea when it comes to making our lives easier. That may be true, for the most part, but what happens when the power grid goes down, which is precisely what happened this past Saturday evening, July 13, thanks to a Con Ed equipment failure that left the west side of Manhattan from 30th to 72nd Street, without electricity for some four hours.
We were there, right in the thick of it.
Traffic lights went out, which is not insignificant in a city/borough like Manhattan, where Saturday is a busy night, given the number of people out and the cabs, Ubers, Lyfts and Vias on the streets, plus the bridge and tunnel crowd that descends. It was a nightmare at first, with bumper to bumper traffic and gridlock everywhere, until civilians stepped forward where there were no police to guide traffic, and took it upon themselves to do so, using the flashlights on their iPhones and note: the iPhone flashlight blows away those in any of the android phones.
People were trapped in subways and elevators. Compounding the problem was the fact that it was a sweltering night, with temperatures in the 80s, and no air conditioning. Imagine being stuck in an elevator or underground in a subway car for an indeterminate amount of time under those conditions. Police and firefighters managed to extract everyone safely.
The Cashless Society
As for the coming cashless society: Apple and Google pay were worthless in the blackout, as were credit cards. Cash money, baby, and it was a hot night: heaven forfend if you needed to stop and replenish your water supply and had no cash.
ATMs were useless, too.
As we made our way up 8th Avenue in the 40s, we noticed a huge crowd in front of one of the hotels, and no doubt that it was a familiar sight in front of many of the midtown hotels. There was a choke of humanity milling about on the sidewalk and even sitting on the pavement. On closer inspection, we noticed that they were all definitely tourists, and they didn’t look like their purpose was to enjoy the summer evening. They were guests at the hotel and never mind that the elevators weren’t working. There were stairwells, after all.
Their key cards were useless, and they had no access to their rooms: temporily homeless in a city of largesse.
We might have gotten home a lot faster had we taken a CitiBike, but guess what was also out? Yes, the CitiBike docks. Again, the key cards were useless, the street lights were all off, and we were no doubt much safer on foot, anyway. Again, the iPhone flashlight certainly came in handy, as did the food cart vendors – there was at least one on each block, all with carts powered by generators – which marked our route.
We wondered if all of those surveillance cameras that line the city were out, too.
Given the fact that it doesn’t get dark until around 8.30 on a summer night, and that all electricity was restored just before 11 pm, the outage was mercifully rather brief, there was no looting reported, and we weren’t in the dark for very long. Word about the outage quickly spread on Twitter and through texts messages from friends, so again, we weren’t in the dark for very long.
For all of Facebook’s claims of bringing people closer together and connecting the world, the blackout truly did this. We witnessed it not only with the people who stepped out into the streets with their mobile phones (using the built-in flashlights) to direct traffic, but with people on the sidewalks, too, changing their paces so that groups were formed for safety, with everyone sort of keeping an eye out for each other.
There are definite pluses and minuses to tech and just a reminder that when It fails, as in the case of the people locked out of their hotel rooms, it often does so spectacularly. Always good to have a backup plan, and while the electricity may not go offline often – Saturday’s outage occurred to the day of the major NYC outage of 1977, and although there have been a few in the interim, this latest event was a good heads up in the case of potential hackers. Redundancy is not a bad idea, and seemingly a necessity in some instances. In that case, you may never quite know exactly what may be looted, and when the systems will come online again. Onward and forward.