At approximately 4:11 EDT on August 14, 2003, 50 million people in the Midwest, northeastern United States and Canada were stranded in subways and elevators, sat in their cars because traffic lights went out, or watched as their computer monitors and cell phones went black as life as most Americans and many Canadians know it came to an abrupt and uncomfortable halt. While generators provided essential services to hospitals, and television and radio stations remained on the air, telephone, transportation and most essential services—including the availability of water—were either interrupted or stopped completely. It was the ultimate eco-jam—no more cell phone, no more car, no more elevator, no more lights, no more water—you’re literally and figuratively off the grid.
And, as most crises do, the August 2003 blackout brought out both the best and the worst in people. New Yorkers and those who were in New York City during the September 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center were particularly distressed when the early effects of the blackout—no power, chaos, and masses of people in the streets—mimicked 9-11. “I was one month into my internship at St. Vincent’s hospital when the blackout happened,” a young health care worker, AMC, wrote in a blog post. “I remember the lights at the nursing station going out and hearing the emergency generators come on. Most of the staff, who had worked through 9-11, were immediately afraid this was another terrorist attack, and there was palpable relief when the radio reported the cause of the outage.”
For Zac, a New York City native and New York Times blogger, it was a “fantastic experience” that he hopes for again. Many New Yorkers joined rooftop parties where they barbecued and hurriedly consumed soon-to-spoil desserts and ice cream and drank beer before it got warm. “It made you notice things about New York that you’d never get the opportunity to otherwise appreciate (crickets! moonlight lighting the streets!). Despite the obvious inconveniences it caused, I think it is important that we are reminded how much we are dependent on technology. Ever since, I have wished for an intentional 24-hour blackout once a year,” writes Zac.
As Zac so wisely noted, the collapse of the Northeast’s grid and the power failure it caused provided a powerful reminder of the mostly unconscious reliance upon technology and external energy sources. It was, as Marshall McLuhan writes in Understanding Media, a true collision of forms—the moment “of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses.” So while some gazed at the stars above Toronto and Manhattan for the first time and the lights came on again for the millions left in momentary darkness, the focus quickly shifted to discovering the root cause of the massive and debilitating outage and ideally preventing its recurrence.
What Happened? Who Was to Blame?
August 14, 2003, was an unusually hot day (88 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the effected areas), so electricity use was at its peak and the fragile system was under great stress from air conditioners and fans. Unlike other power-generating systems, such as coal or natural gas, electricity is difficult to store and there is literally nowhere for the power to go once it is generated. The deregulation of the electric power industry encouraged the development of power-generating places in geographically remote distances from the customers who actually use the electricity.
As a result, electrical power often has to travel great distances from the place it is generated to the place where it is used. This dynamic and complex flow is amazingly and routinely managed by control room operators through a network of circuit breakers. All the power that is generated must be sent somewhere immediately, so the control room operators work to ensure a regular flow of power by switching transmission lines and generators to prevent spikes, which cause circuit breakers to trip. Their failsafe backup option is termed “shedding load,” which means they cut a specific amount from the larger grid to prevent the collapse of the entire system. “Every major blackout that has occurred because someone somewhere faced the decision of whether or not to shed load and hesitated,” writes software engineering expert Bret Petticord.
As millions of Canadians and Americans struggled to get home from work, find food and water, cool off and otherwise cope without the seemingly unlimited power to which we have become accustomed, early reports of the cause of the breakdown surfaced. Like two boys caught in a playground fight, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and New York Governor Pataki blamed each other: Chretien attributed the collapse of the grid that left his countrymen in the dark to a lightning strike in a power plant in upstate New York. Meanwhile, Pataki claimed the massive outage did not originate in his state but “west of Ontario” where it “cascaded from there to Ontario, Canada, and throughout the Northeast.” Neither was accurate.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and evidence now supports the finding that the first critical event occurred when First Energy, an Ohio utility company, had a silent failure with its alarm system. At 2:14 p.m. EST on August 14, 2003, First Energy stopped getting alarms, which is not unusual and at this point, there was no reason for intervention. However, system operators rely heavily on audible and on-screen alarms, and their malfunction is a serious, if not critical, problem. At 2:41 p.m., the computer server hosting the alarm software shut down and the First Energy’s IT staff were alerted. At this point, both the alarm system and the system designed to back it up failed. First Energy’s IT staff then restarted the computer server that shut down the alarm system and believed that they solved the problem and now had a functional system. But the alarm system was still not working, and system operators had not been alerted and informed of the malfunction. Meanwhile, the power grid was starting to get jammed up. Transmission lines were getting tripped and shutting down—the first clues that something was really wrong. First Energy System operators started to get one, two, three calls—call after call after call—from operators at other power plants warning them of the potential danger. Technical writing consultant Mary Aiello closely examined the communication of the operators and discovered that at 3:35 p.m. First Energy’s control room operators began receiving phone calls informing them that the spikes on transformers were triggering “over-excitation” alarms indicating that there were “radical and dangerous fluctuations in grid activity.”
In his third and final call, a Perry Nuclear Plant Operator in Cleveland, Ohio, told First Energy operators that his meters were “still bouncing around pretty good” and “I know something ain’t right.” First Energy operators examined their monitors and alarm system (which were not functioning and displaying old data at that time). This was their unfortunate reply to the early warning: “It’s got to be in distribution…or somebody else’s problem…I’m not showing anything.”An hour passed, additional phone calls came in reporting tripped and overloaded lines, and the First Energy control room operator finally began to recognize that there was a problem in the system—his system. Yet despite this early warning and what was a quintessentially karotic moment—a time for quick and decisive action—the First Energy operator did nothing: He did not inform other operators (encouraging them to quickly shed load) or take action himself (remove this operation from the network). As we now know, and the “Final Report on the August 14, 2003 Blackout prepared by the United States and Canada” confirms, this decision (or perhaps his indecision) was critical. Engineers and other experts who investigated the grid failure concluded that the “cascading blackout could have been prevented if the systems operator(s) at First Energy had shed most of the load from the Cleveland-Akron area.”
Why It Is Important to Learn to Trust Our Own Instincts
While the authors of the Blackout report acknowledge that “it is not humanly possible for one person to understand all these events simultaneously,” and there was no punitive reaction to the report’s conclusions and findings, there is culpability. It is very easy to forget or perhaps refuse to acknowledge that doing nothing is also a choice—a choice often grounded in the denial of our reality. What should be done when one is faced with mixed, conflicted and contradictory information? What strategies work when one must decide on an appropriate course of action when, like the control room operators, we get information that conflicts with what we see before us? Whom should we trust? Is this what happens when trust is placed in machines and monitors instead of human beings?
These are difficult and timeless questions cast in a new light in the digital age of increasing global interdependence supplied by complex information networks and power structures. Yet we must ask and seriously consider them because, as we can see, the consequences are far-reaching and often irrevocable. Perhaps the most primary is the pressing moral imperative inherent in message reception—on any level. “At the end of the day,” Mary Aiello writes, “in a world involving (almost constant) interactions between man and machine, there is a quiet voice that should remind us…(to) sustain compassion, active listening, and human rationality.” Bill Moyers, one of the country’s premier journalists, likens this still, small voice within to a personal First Amendment, that “would protect the quite fragile voice that occasionally rises uninvited to say, “That’s not so: That’s not the truth.” Like the First Energy operators, intuition cries “something ain’t right,” yet despite this clear warning, the real truth is shut down and shut out. At first glance, this appears to be a parable about technological dependence and the dire consequences of Technopoly—a culture and state-of-mind devoid of values —that Neil Postman, the founder of the philosophy of Media Ecology , warned about. It is also nature’s ultimate “eco-jam,” and more powerfully than the obstructionist antics of cultural jammers, it dramatically and urgently issues a call to wake up from the illusory trance—the daydream that ignores increasing dependence upon external energy sources and mindless devotion to technology.
This is what happens both individually and collectively when we stop trusting ourselves and each other and abdicate the very real responsibility for recognizing, speaking, and sharing the truth. If there is any doubt that we are all connected, the consequences surrounding the ultimate and almost total failure of the Northeast power grid should remove any doubt of the paradox of our interdependence: We are only as strong as our weakest link.