Saturday, 3 December 2011

A question about electricity

Electricity in 1897

Electricity now

To my non-scientific eye, there doesn't seem to be much difference between these two pictures.

We live in a wondrous age of digital, wireless everything, and believe me, I don't take it for granted. As a kid I played 78 rpm records on a wind-up Victrola; now I can hold 130 gigabytes' worth of jazz, pop, and classical music in the palm of my hand. I can read any newspaper in the world with my morning coffee. I can post my reminiscences and favorite pieces of music and share them with the world. I can play Texas Hold 'Em poker against opponents from Poland, Brazil, Thailand, and New Zealand.

And yet, if a tree branch snaps off somewhere, anywhere, and brings down a wire, we're cold, in the dark, and all my Steve Jobs wonders are worthless, their batteries unrechargeable.

Brooklyn Girl and I live in a modern, prosperous city that likes to think of itself as world-class, yet our supply of power is, at best, unreliable. (When the electricity is off, my adjective changes to "third-world.") The weather doesn't have to be bad. It can be a perfectly lovely day, as was yesterday, and zap! the electricity goes off for two hours.

I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood where the electrical infrastructure was as old as Edison. I remember our house being dark during the hurricane of 1944, but in all the years I lived on 71st Street I don't recall such an on-again-off-again relationship with our power supply.

Exposed wires and wooden poles? That's pathetic. With universal solar power still a pipe-dream and the cost of burying all those wires too high, our high-tech superstructure rests on a foundation right out of the horse-and-buggy era. Why has there been no breakthrough in this area since 1897?

Right now it's raining and windy outside. I just hope the electri

1 comment:

  1. I know. And the psychic terror that hits when the lights go out is so much deeper than it was thirty years ago, when we could eat canned tuna and crackers, listen to the battery-operated radio, use a flashlight to go to bed without falling over things. Now -- we can't go online for long or check Facebook or see our new emails, and we start biting ourselves. Or people nearby. I love technology but I remember the pre-technological age where people read books on the subway and had conversations . . . and electric power costs more than the numbers on the bill. So, by the way, do all the gadgets we love: has anyone else seen Mike Daisey's monologue THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, where he talks heartbreakingly about his trip to China to see how the workers who make all the things we love are suffering and dying? Beyond tragic, beyond inhuman. Alas.