November 11, 2012

What We Learned


Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, and already most of you have forgotten about it. The power’s on, the trains are running, the government’s taking care of all those poor slobs who lost their homes, so what’s left to worry about? Besides. we just had an election, there’s other stuff going on, all is well. What hurricane was this, now?

            The fools snicker and sneer when they learn I’m still on a land line, my old analog TV has rabbit ears, that I carry no portable computing devices or cell phones, that I do all my banking and pay my bills with paper, not online, that I live in a comparatively primitive bubble. They also snicker when I tell them they’re all seriously fucked when the power goes out.

            But think back to that week, how utterly vulnerable and helpless we were, and tell me I’m not right. In a matter of hours, one-third of the most sophisticated metropolis on earth lost power. Not only did the lights go out, but people lost heat and running water as well. They couldn’t flush their toilets, or ride the elevator to their upper-floor apartments. Traffic lights went out, the subway went down, and cars started running out of gas. Computers died, cell phones couldn’t be recharged, banks and ATMs had to close. Supermarkets, bodegas, restaurants, hardware stores, businesses of any kind had to close because they had no refrigeration and couldn’t use their cash registers. There was no food. For many there was no water for drinking or bathing. There were no pharmacies and no easy way to get to where there were any.

            I could go on, but in short commerce, communication, transportation, and the food supply—the very heart of any civilization—were all knocked out. In those short hours, all of lower Manhattan became a set out of John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, complete with roving bands of cannibalistic crazies.

            We have become so utterly dependent on the Machine. It’s where we work, where we store our vital information, where we find our entertainment and learn what’s happening in the world, it’s how we stay in touch with one another. On a grander scale, it’s what makes little things like communication and transportation possible here. It has become our very life itself. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone, if reluctantly. A few weeks back the screen reader on my computer—the voice that tells me what I’m doing and what I’m typing—blinked out, and I was utterly lost. Take the Machine out of our hands for a few days, even a few hours, and look at what happens to us. We resort to hunter-gatherer status. I’m amazed the murder rate in lower Manhattan didn’t spike that week, but you know people were tempted. Look at what happened to people who suddenly found they had to wait in line to buy gas for their cars, or scrambled for food after the stores began reopening. It just goes to show once again that we’re hardly the evolved, sophisticated, intelligent creatures we think we are. We’re a mere tick away from savagery, and can let a little pain in the ass like “no gas” or “no food” or “no Facebook access” give us that little nudge into bloodlust. “Fuck the neighbors—I want some Twinkies!” The ironic thing is, for all the residual animal instincts, we’re still as weak and helpless as crippled newborn kittens.

            The day after the storm tore through the area, Governor Cuomo gave a press conference in which he stated that this was all another symptom of climate change, and that it was something we’d need to get used to. He also noted that around the world people who live in areas prone to certain types of natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, typhoons—rebuild their structures and infrastructure to take these potentialities into account and more readily withstand them in the future. He urged that the states devastated by Sandy do the same with a mind toward future hurricanes and floods. That’s all wise and fine and good, but he said nothing about changing the way we think and interact.

            You can set up all the “anti-terrorist” measures you want, but there will still be terrorist attacks. You can build houses on stilts, do away with basements, stop building wood frame homes on the beach, install shatterproof windows, reconfigure the subway system, and although those things may be better protected in physical terms, a computer virus, or human error, or something we haven’t considered yet, can and will still come along and knock out the power. And when that happens, we’ll be fucked all over again, because people are only going to become more dependent on the Machine in the decades to come.

            There’s no such thing as security. We are, and always will be vulnerable, both to those things we can point at now (like forces of nature) and those things we can’t yet imagine. It’s all part of the central conundrum of freedom. Freedom and security are mutually exclusive. But the really funny thing is that security itself, even when silly concepts like “freedom” aren’t in play, is a myth. We aren’t protected, and can’t be protected. And that’s why in the aftermath of Sandy, it’s clear we haven’t learned a goddamn thing.

            The only way to be a little less fucked when the inevitable rolls around again (and then again after that and after that) is to resist as much as possible the pull of the Machine. Not that I’m ever one to tell anyone what to do (thank god), simply because I’m not fool enough to think anyone will listen.

            In fact come to think of it, nah, go ahead—bury yourself in the damn thing again. Store all your vital documents there, live your lives there, make living itself impossible without it. I’ll be happy here with my landline and my paper envelopes. And when the inevitable comes, I’ll be annoyed and frustrated sure, but that’s all. Then I’ll pull a beer out of the cooler and listen to the screams through the Bunker walls.


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