Blackouts: Symptoms of Our Dependence

As New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s administration prepares its lawsuit against the giant utility Consolidated Edison for the 19-hour blackout that plunged northern Manhattan into darkness last month, residents from the afflicted neighborhoods charge a conspiracy of the rich against the poor. Meanwhile, urban dwellers in Chicago and cities across the nation wonder about the origins of their own power failures. Still others await, uneasily, the sudden flicker of the lights.

Who shall we blame for the recent failures? The question is understandable — even necessary. Yet the search for blame can obscure the broader, more profound problem of dependence that blackouts reveal.

This year of anticipating “Y2K” has served to remind us that the computers we call “personal” actually answer to specialized programmers, software engineers and corporate executives. Blackouts offer a similarly troubling lesson: the technological “progress” that marks modern American life has resulted in decreasing measures of both competence and control by ordinary citizens over the vital mechanisms of everyday life.  

Little more than thirty years ago, blackouts struck only occasionally and rarely caused major damage. In 1950, residents in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Utah and Montana were affected when a series of power plants in the Pacific Northwest faltered. In 1959 and 1961, isolated network areas blinkered in New York City. London went black for four hours in 1964, and, in the early part of the next year, episodic power failures beset millions of residents in Iowa, Indiana and other Midwestern states. Yet none of these incidents, local and swiftly resolved, incited grave concern. Certainly none served to prepare either utility executives or consumers for the massive, cascading blackout that darkened most of the Northeast on November 9th, 1965.  

That failure began with a faulty relay in a Canadian power station at 5:15 p.m. Within three minutes all of Rochester was dark, then Boston, followed by hundreds of small towns and suburbs with electrical systems connected in a new trans-border, power-sharing grid. Finally, New York City surrendered. A mere thirteen minutes after it began, the 1965 blackout left portions of eight states without power. For more than 23 hours, the “great Northeast blackout” — the largest in the history of the World — returned 30 million Americans to the pre-electric age. How did they respond? New Yorkers, at least, mixed their surprise with a reserve of composure and patience that many believed had long since been depleted. 

During the evening of July 13, 1977, another blackout seized the city. The cause? Multiple lightning strikes at a Consolidated Edison transmission line. This time, the reaction by New Yorkers proved startlingly different. More modest in scope — only nine million people were affected — the 1977 blackout was more brutal in consequence. For with the descent of the shadows came a fierce night of arson, looting and violence, mostly in such poor areas of the city as Brooklyn’s Bushwick section. Police arrested four thousand people. Firefighters battled a thousand blazes. And, according to some estimates, the looting resulted in $1 billion in business losses.

Many observers rightly have noted the contrasting social  responses to these two famous blackouts. Yet large-scale power failures, past and present, also have something in common: they reveal our dependence upon increasingly complicated technologies and the increasingly distant experts who run them. 

Corporations encourage us to purchase an endless variety of new and intricate household appliances. Automotive engineers design cars that defy the capacities of local mechanics and ordinary drivers alike. (The newest models do not even offer the conventional lever that permits drivers to roll up windows by hand.) Visit the hospital, and you will confront a forbidding array of digital devices. They might understand you, but you cannot understand them. And computers, as the “Y2K” problem has insisted, increase our productivity while they take from us basic control over the tools of communication. Once, we simply sharpened our pencils. Now we call the Microsoft help line.

Blackouts, too, belong to the late twentieth century, to its quest for greater technological “progress” at the expense of local autonomy and individual self-reliance. Who among us understands today’s interconnected circuitry? Who among us can do more than wait, helplessly, as experts restore our power? 

Thoughtful commentators sometimes remark that daily existence in a technology-driven society such as ours is precarious. To be sure, with an unexpected plunge into darkness, hospitals scramble for emergency energy, businesses slow, and householders stumble toward candles and flashlights. Yet life in the United States has always proven precarious. What has changed is the character of our insecurity. When the lights go out, the terms of modern life are starkly revealed: we have traded competence and control for convenience and “progress.”

John H. Summers, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Rochester and assistant editor of the Blackout History Project , is a writer for the History News Service.