Technology Fails in an Inverse Relationship to Recency and Complexity

by Todd Ogasawara

20061015 Post Earthquake
Chemical light There have been two natural disaster related reflective blogs over on Port 25 in the past month...

On January 9 Bill Hilf posted What Matters... (with photos!) discussing the loss of electrical power in his area for eight days.

A few days ago Kishi Malhotra commented that It's not all technology... and focused on power abstinence, chaos, awareness, and our fragile infrastructure.

Looking at the photos and reading the situation descriptions brought to mind my own shorter bout with nature a few months ago. I blogged about it on the MacDevCenter (see blog link below), so I won't repeat the details here.

A Tiny Taste of "Jericho": Tech Grades After an Earthquake

But, I did want to note that for me it was always about the available technology and what was actual usable and useful. I suspect that because my area did not seem to be in any danger after the tremors stopped and the weather was reasonably nice (see the photo at the top left), I started assessing what was working right away. Electricity disappeared about 10 minutes after the quake. In fact, I had just booted up my Mac mini to check the news as power failed. Fortunately, the UPS kicked in and I shut it down gracefully. Wired phone service stayed up but my cell carrier was overwhelmed and I was out of wireless voice and data for the duration. But, old and simple technology like flashlights, canned food (canning is technology IMHO), and propane camping stoves all worked fine. As I mentioned the 100+ year old wireline phone service kept working too. One radio station stayed up even though they kept playing a pre-recorded political panel discussion for nearly an hour after the quake. One television station stayed on air. But, because most of us get TV signals from cable (I can barely get radio reception where I am), the only people who saw them were in other States.

Generally speaking, for the ordinary citizen (like me), GSM, GPRS, EDGE, TCP/IP, and a whole lot of other tech developed in the last 40 years were unusable. Even the relative oldster Television (in its mid-60s in age for widespread use) was not helpful even though one station was broadcasting.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. I seem to recall reading that a mesh wireless LAN used for security cameras in New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina and was used to provide Voice over IP (VoIP) after other communications conduits failed.

Given the seemingly slow recovery times we've been seeing nationwide (worldwide?) for mild to catastrophic events, one wonders if the powers that be and utilities factor in technology recency and complexity into their post-disaster triage plans.


2007-02-07 14:51:54
Todd - you bring up a great point about the power companies and essential utilities factoring such invens into their disaster recovery plans. At the heart of it, the realization I had was that loss of power was the single most debilitating experience since so much of our essential infrastructure is completely dependent on it.