Don’t fall for Silicon Valley’s hubris—our technological future is more fragile than we think

Energy Shocks
Energy Shocks

Lompico is the rough jewel of Santa Cruz, California—high in the mountains and deep in the redwood forest, population 1,140. Weather providing, it takes less than an hour to get here from Silicon Valley, where technologists are hard at work designing our brave new world.

But heavy rains have made the valley barely accessible to Lompico residents like me this winter. Road closures are common in Lompico, caused by mudslides, fallen trees, and rising waters. California governor Jerry Brown requested federal disaster relief funds on Feb. 11 for this and other nearby counties, estimating damage at $162 million.

Now, just getting out of my neighborhood takes an hour. I navigate perilous one-lane trails with caravans of cars waiting their turn in either direction. Drivers back up onto cliff edges in the dark and fog to let each other by, hoping for the best. Out here, a comfortable, technologically advanced future hardly seems assured. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that our lives are still subject to the whims of nature. All it takes is a few hours of steady rain to down a dead tree and wreak havoc on an otherwise peaceful week.

Local character.
Local character. (el)

Blocked roads and evacuations aren’t the only obstacles around here. Electricity has become a bit of a luxury, and steady internet access is starting to seem like a thing of the past.

The rains have caused weekly blackouts that last for days, although the men from Pacific Gas and Electric (always men) make extraordinary efforts to clear downed lines and bring back the lights, sometimes working late into the pitch-black night. When there’s no power in the mornings, I drive off in search of wifi, working in cafes.

Now my awesome gig writing from home has turned into a challenge of its own—how to be a professional despite technological difficulties, and without the comforts that help to keep me organized and civilized. No power at home also means no routines, hot meals, heat, or hot showers. Little deprivations that are cute challenges on a camping trip are hugely annoying hurdles to overcome when you’re just trying to live your life.

Downed trees and rising waters.
Downed trees and rising waters. (el)

It’s fun to talk about Elon Musk shooting us to space, or a Hyperloop hurtling us through earth for our daily commutes. But the truth is that the US isn’t as invulnerable as we think. One storm can still shut down a major metropolis. During Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, I walked from Brooklyn to upper Manhattan to get to work in a building with power, as there was no subway service and no electricity in our company’s Wall Street location. From my studio in Greenpoint at night, no lights were visible in the city, the glorious New York skyline dimmed to nonexistence.

Similarly, in the summer of 2003, I was way uptown taking a final exam at Columbia University when New York had a major blackout. I finished scribbling my analysis of Iranian movies with no power and walked home to Park Slope in a darkened city. It took five hours. Still, the mood was upbeat and I had company. I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge with a Trinidadian immigrant who was clearly amused to see that even in the city that never sleeps, the lights do sometimes go out.

Of course, such moments remain common in the many places around the world that still struggle with access to basic amenities like power. In 2016, reliable electricity was only available to 40% of Africans. An Indian government study reported that 40% of schools nationally lacked power last year. And major cities like Bangalore cut it off every two hours during the hottest months. This winter in Santa Cruz has been a reminder that although Americans are lucky, we are not invincible.

Working from a local cafe one rainy day in January, I arranged an interview with a technologist in India. I explained that if I fell out of touch, it was because of spotty electricity and internet access. His representative replied that they also chase wifi in Mumbai. But she seemed surprised that I was having such problems, considering where I live.

In fact, despite my proximity to Silicon Valley, I feel a little like I’m living in the old Wild West. The future doesn’t appear at all sorted. If anything, it seems highly unlikely that we can, or should, entirely rely on the fragile systems we’ve created to support modern life.

Watching workmen deal with downed power lines outside my windows has given me ample time to reflect on my dependence on electricity. When I can’t distract myself with the internet, movies, hot coffee and showers, I slow way down. Sometimes, I read by candlelight. Mostly, I lie in the dark listening to the rain, vaguely concerned about my crop of stories, but aware that I don’t get to determine the harvest.

It’s not just that I do less when there’s no electricity. I also can’t exactly remember why it usually seems so urgent to be constantly consuming and producing, exerting my will. When the power goes down, my own energy changes—as if my body needs a current of electricity to spring into action. Inevitably, this makes me wonder: What happens if someday the power doesn’t come on?

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