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Article: Losing Power

by on December 21, 2012

Yesterday the power went out for a bit—no, this isn’t going to be some sort of Mayan-prophecy or Revolution (the show on NBC) post. Combine high winds in the Midwest just ahead of lower temperatures and a somewhat nasty snow storm and you have a pretty good recipe for a snapped tree limb somewhere. I was walking back from returning a couple of DVDs to the Redbox near my apartment when all of the traffic lights went out. Usually I’ve been at home or at work when we lose power, so it was a bit weird to see everything shut down almost all at once.

I continued on home, almost finishing the album I was listening to—I did notice that my phone briefly switched from “4G” to EDGE and back—perhaps a side-effect of the tower losing power and then switching over to a backup means of power? Still, once at home, I noticed a couple of things that I never really had a chance to appreciate: absolute silence and the wind outside howling. I have a fish tank in my living room and my apartment is heated through an old air handler that is running most of the time. Because these two things, along with the refrigerator, were off, my apartment was completely silent for the first time in recent memory. Outside we were still dealing with the high winds, so I was actually able to hear them. Then, my iPhone buzzed because of an incoming text. I was still connected.

It’s kind of funny how many things we do out of habit, or don’t realize the dependency of one thing on another. While my iPhone exists completely independent of the power grid and my local ISP (apart from charging and saving a bit on data usage), my iPad does not. It is a cellular model, but I haven’t enabled service in quite awhile. I thought about enabling it, but thought I’d wait and see how long I would have to amuse myself without the Internet or TV. With the apartment already quite warm, I wasn’t too concerned with being too cold, and most of my perishable food could end up in a cooler in the trunk of my car. With those out of the way, I could focus on geekier things to worry about.

Going through my iPad, I realized that almost everything that I do requires the Internet. I ended up reading the latest issue of The Magazine, although I ran into some trouble after instinctively trying to email an article. Apple really needs an obnoxious banner across the top of the screen to let you know about the lack of connectivity—I’m only half-joking. Once that was done, I worked on some product review drafts (couldn’t fact-check), and played a couple of games. Best of all, I hadn’t scracthed the surface of my battery life.

Getting curious of how widespread the outage was, I opened up our local TV station’s app, and was reminded that I made the same mistake again with an error. I grabbed my iPhone and checked there…nothing. I was interrupted by a phone call from a friend to see if our dinner plans were still on. I’ve always found the take-over-the-screen nature of an incoming call on the iPhone annoying, since it interrupts whatever I’m doing, almost modal, but I guess this is just the iPhone doing it’s job, as, you know, a phone.

About an hour later, I was immediately alerted to the power returning with the simultaneous chime of my Mac mini media server, the filter and air pump kicking on from the fish tank, and the general electrical hum of everything else running. My iPad immediately started playing catch up in terms of notifications and emails from the past hour. I actually found this annoying, especially in contrast to the silent unobtrusive amusement it served for the past hour.

Athough it could’ve been much worse (I have family that lost power earlier today and are expected to be without until Sunday), the brief vacation from Internet on everything except an iPhone, iPad as a disconnected devices, and absolute silence was a great change of pace and a time for taking stock. I actually used this experience as a way to evaluate what kind of notifications I really care about, and changed my email settings from “push” to “fetch”, further cutting down the constant stream of time-stealing distractions. I don’t think I could do something like Paul Miller quitting the Internet, nor would I have enjoyed being disconnected for days, but it was a good experience to reflect on how hyperconnected we have become.

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