Blackouts are pretty sobering events. They represent the fallibility and fragility of our electricity infrastructure. But these events are more common than you might think. I recently came across The Blackout History Project organized by the researchers at the George Mason University. Some of the accounts on this website are quite interesting. Coming from the electric utilities or affiliates are telling of their view we can see quite a techno-optimist view.
One can speculate on the reasons for society’s apathy in the face of physical and/or economic attacks on The System. Surely there has been a rise in consumerism, a broader application of civil disobedience, and a feeling by more segments of society that unjust or obsolete laws or regulations can be changed de facto, by simply disregarding them. Whatever the reasons, the impact on the technologist himself is clear. He must consider new constraints, occasionally even thinking the unthinkable. His designs must not merely be reliable, environment-proof, and internal failure-proof; they must also be saboteur-proof, foolproof, vandal-proof, criminal-proof, and idiot-proof. And, as in the case of any superior design, he must do his thinking and planning at the outset, or else become caught up in “fixes,” or in trying to design costly and complex auxiliary systems to protect existing plant.
The full text from which this excerpt was taken is available in the archive:
IEEE Spectrum, May 1975, pg. 31. (italics added)
The “technologist’s” view is illustrated clearly here, assuming we can just design our way to the best solution. But it’s more complicated than that. As Charles Perrow argues in his book Normal Accidents there are failures built into the systems, which are not anomalies, but necessities. The technologist’s view also reflects the idea that we can plan effectively for the future in a dogmatic sense, which is a clear articulation of modernist planning ideals. And we know that this sort of thinking is disastrous although often well-intentioned.
The main reason for this post was to show a great resource for studying the impacts of blackouts for anyone interested.