The New York Blackout

Above: View of 34th St. in New York City during power outage which caused the 1977 blackout. Credit: New York Daily News.

Big Outage

As Virilio and Baudrillard (repeatedly) predicted, a big Internet outage is coming. For a while on Monday 21 May, in London, around twelve-noon, it felt like the first one might have started (no phone-signal or wifi connection for more-than-an-hour, without explanation). The first reaction is always the same: repeated efforts to log-on to browser and email. And then, when that fails. Repeated efforts to open an app. Reset the wifi, restart phone. The end user feels helpless and frustrated. This is not possible!

The first big outage may be city-wide, perhaps all of London. Or all of New York. The first big New York Internet Outage might have an impact comparable to the New York Blackout of 1977: uncontrolled rioting, looting, and outright mayhem for about twenty-four hours. The Dyn cyber-attack caused many websites to become unavailable on 21 October, 2016. On that occasion there was a definite perpetrator, and a definite reason for the attack. A real outage event will be different: it will not last a couple of hours but rather a few days--two or three days without Internet for tens-of-millions of persons. The perpetrators or explanation will be only rumoured: State operators, hacking groups, a one-off tech failure (the real reason will never be known with certainty). Everyone will be checking their systems. With not much of an idea what is causing the disruption.

In Virilian terms this outage is the accident of the Internet. The accident is always the negative consequence of a technology and one which we tend to avoid thinking too much about. The Virilian accident is an event which is actually inevitable (the technology of railway systems means also the invention of the train crash), but is rarely recognised as ordained and unpreventable. Rather the accident is placed under the rubric of catastrophe--something similar to an act of God. A tragic event which has caused loss of life, billions in lost income, etc. In other words, the accident is always billed-and-reviewed incorrectly as a surprising one-off.

The Internet and mobile-device-signal has become so integral to modern Western existence that life without it is near-unimaginable. (Much as auto use in LA: without an auto ordinary life grinds to a halt.) In a Big Outage (B.O.) will people go back to telephone and snail-mail letter-writing? It is unknown. Even as I write this, the prospect of a B.O. still resides in the realm of the fantastic--a Ballardian scenario which is not likely to happen. It can be thought about but it is no more palpable to me at this moment than the events of Ballard's The Drowned World. The B.O. exists in the realm of improbable rather than the realm of likely-to-be-happening-soon. It is just too painful and traumatizing to accept a B.O. as inevitable, so it gets hidden-away and remains mostly repressed.

(22 May 2018)