A Parable of Disconnectedness

What happens when the cell phones, the land lines, and the Internet all go out.
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The report below comes from Glenna Hall -- a former judge in Washington state, a current pilot, and a one-time Guest Blogger on this site. She writes about an episode this week in which she and her community lost virtually all contact with the outside world -- by cellphone, landline, and Internet. Because they were on an island, they couldn't just drive someplace else.

Her account is long, but I think the details are interesting and illuminating, especially about technological dependence on the individual and the collective level. She also makes an important point about the balance between public and private wealth* -- and explains why so many people in the community are now relying on the resource shown above, the public library. In our recent travels we've frequently seen that in small-town America, Internet coverage remains surprisingly spotty, leaving libraries as a mainstay source of higher-speed connections. More on than later; for now, the report from San Juan County.

By Glenna Hall.

This past Tuesday morning, a large portion of an entire United States county woke up to find itself without cell phone service or access to the internet, and nobody in the county had long distance phone service. This is not an alternate-history fantasy; this county is totally dependent for virtually all its telecommunications on one private phone company, Centurylink.

Not everybody in Washington's San Juan Islands realized something was wrong right away: mostly it was people who check their email first thing, or maybe needed to call another island, or who tried to call the phone company to report their phone out of order. As the day wore on, though, the breadth of the problem began to dawn on county residents. Most of the banks in the county seat were closed--no way to do electronic transactions. Ditto the credit-card portion of businesses. No way for air charter services to get calls from outside the county to reserve their services. No way to check the status of public transportation (i.e., the ferries). No way for pilots to check weather outside the immediate area until they were airborne. For those parts of the county without internet, no streaming video. No social media. No making airline reservations or buying theater tickets online. Communications for air ambulance services were disrupted. Most worrisome of all, no 911 service on any of the islands.

And no way to find out what was going on or how long it would last. Rumors abounded. The most widespread was that some guy on another island had been digging a post hole at four o’clock in the morning and had severed a fiber cable. (That we believed this says something about us islanders, though I'm not sure what.)

But also as the day wore on, county residents began to realize that some communications resources still worked: those in the libraries, the schools, the offices of the local electric coop, a few businesses and coffee shops. The libraries had lines of people waiting to get in the next morning, and, in the evening hours, cars were parked in their parking lots, the eerie glow of mobile-device screens illuminating the occupants.

Information began to trickle in as people connected to the phone company, newspapers, or the electric coop (Orcas Power and Light Cooperative--OPALCO) reported on what they had heard. This was not just a damaged underground cable, it was a severed submarine cable, with the break possibly halfway between two of the larger and more populous islands. The cable serves what is basically the sole source of landline telephone and internet, and Centurylinks's resource presence in the county is small. The estimates of the duration of the outage are all over the place, but could be grim--voice service might be restored in a week, the internet in three or more weeks.

I had occasion to interact with a relatively large number of people in the first day or so. Our communications disruption was the chief topic of conversation. Folks felt discombobulated. Even late adopters of the technology had become used to email and other forms of web-based interaction, not to mention just surfing the web. We talked about what we had done in place of those activities: reading, taking walks, sorting magazines, seeing people face to face.

I spent much of today, the third day of the communications disruption, in places where there was both internet and a fair sampling of people, including some with actual knowledge (for full disclosure, I am on the board of the electric co-op). I learned that local businesses were, indeed, suffering. One local professional told me he was keeping track of his losses, and they were significant. On the other hand, many of the electronic haves, most of whom have access to the power co-op's fiber, are sharing with the have-nots: the alternate ISP in Friday Harbor is opening its usually subscriber-only hotspots to the public; some coffee shops are allowing noncustomers access to their service; I saw a sign on the hardware store advertising free wi-fi. The parking lots of the power co-op and the library are full. There are no free seats at the library. OPALCO, which is a national expert in underwater cable technology, immediately offered to help Centurylink with repair work.

In my personal view, the real heroes so far are the San Juan Island Library and OPALCO. The library staff has been patiently and cheerfully helping folks with their computers and programs, after having set up extra work spaces in the main areas.

I don't know yet how businesses are going to work around a lack of internet access that might conceivably last till Thanksgiving. I know the two choruses I sing in are going to have to figure out more corporeal ways to publicize their winter concerts; I can only imagine the headaches facing telecommuters. It would be easy to say “Yeah, this is great, we'll all cure our internet addictions!” But I think we'll find that there is no easy way to disentangle our enmeshment with modern communications technology. Whether we know it or not, we all use the internet.

I'll keep you posted, from the library (if I can squeeze in).

* On the interaction between public and private prosperity, you can never go wrong with this famous passage from J.K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society:

"The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards, and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground... They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings."

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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