Monday, March 24, 2014

Apocalypse When?

Sacchi Green

Here I was, thinking about how impossible it seems to keep up with the exponential expansion of technology, when I came across this article online:

The gist of it is that in July of 2012, a solar blast from a magnetic storm swept across earth’s orbit where we had been just nine days earlier.  A near-miss. “It would have been a geomagnetic catastrophe the likes of which we've never seen.” Actually, it had been seen, but that was in what’s been called the “Carrington Event of 1859,” and pretty much the only significant electronic devises around were the telegraph systems. Some telegraph stations caught fire, telegraph operators were shocked, and the Northern Lights were so bright so far south that people in Mexico could read newspapers by night in the glow. Not a huge disruption to civilization as the mid-nineteenth century knew it, but these days we rely so much on electronic technology that the damage could take up to ten years for recovery—if ever, considering the chaos it would cause. And these solar storm incidents aren’t all that rare, even though we’ve rarely been in their direct paths.

Well. Aren’t you glad to have something else to add to your list of things to worry about? I could never understand why folks take such glee in imagining a zombie apocalypse, which they know to be impossible, when there are plenty of more likely causes of rack and ruin, from the ecological to the astronomical. Maybe that’s the point; distract ourselves from real potential threats.

My point here, though, if I have one, is how dependent we are on advanced technology, and how much of that technology depends on a relatively vulnerable system of electricity. Most of us—all too many of us in recent years—have experienced blackouts for limited periods, and some of us may have spent longer periods “off the grid” intentionally, on camping trips, say, or treks through regions of the world where people still know how to survive without modern gadgets. During power outages due to blizzards or hurricanes, we might get by with battery operated lights and candles, and, if we’re really lucky, propane camping stoves or fireplaces or wood stoves, but what happens when the batteries wear out?

Even worse, how do we cope when our computer and phone batteries wear out, and even before that when the wi-fi quits? I admit it. I’m addicted to online communication in all its infinite varieties. I get nervous when I can’t check e-mail at least daily. Okay, several times a day. And I didn’t grow up in a world of computers or even, until I was twelve, TV, although my friends had TV before I did. As a kid I had books, and radio and newspapers for news, and a land-line telephone, and didn’t know I was missing anything. In college I wrote all my papers on a manual typewriter, although electric ones existed and I had one soon afterward.  To say I’m addicted to writing on a computer with a word program would be a profound understatement. They say (whoever “they” are in this case) that using computers for games and social media and probably just about anything else actually changes how our brains work, so I wonder how much harder it would be for people accustomed to this technology all their lives to do without than it would be for me, which is traumatic enough.

We’ve come to think that for technological problems the answer is more and better technology, and so far that has seemed to be the case. Just as I was getting worked up about the threat of solar storms I came across another, newer article: 

High-capacity batteries storing electricity from wind and solar power sources? Hmm, maybe it would be worthwhile after all to cut down some of the trees on the south side of my house so that installing solar cells on the roof would be practical. Although those trees provide needed shade in summer…

Okay. Enough of adding to my list of things to worry about. At least zombies aren’t among them. And time to find a way to link all this to erotica. Hey, is it just an urban legend that birth rates spike nine months after major blackouts? Now there’s a topic for an anthology. “Blackout Erotica: Sex When the Lights Go Out.”


  1. I think many of the same synapses that apply to learning a language are also employed in computerspeak. They (probably the same 'they' as you cite) say that as we get older, the harder it is for the average person to learn a new language. Nowadays, kids grow up with computers; they literally learn from immersion, like we do with our native tongue.

    Yes, we can afford to have fun with zombies, can't we? Solar eruptions are so boring, not to mention worrisome.

  2. Goes back to my old saying that I will watch movies and read books about vampires, weres and other creatures of the night because I don't believe in them! But monsters who live among us, look just like us, yet act like cancer cells on the body of humanity? They scare the crap out of me! So don't even ask if I'll watch that kind of movie or read that kind of book.

    And yes, I share your concern about what would happen if a massive power surge knocked out our electronics. We don't teach Morse code anymore, so even though they depended on it in "Independence Day", we couldn't. Husband and I made the choice early on to raise our kids going camping as frequently as we could manage, with longer trips in the summer. They used to bring their hand-held games when they were in their stormy adolescences, but 3 of the 4 still love to go out into nature and they don't bring electronic toys with them anymore. At least our kids would know how to adapt...I hope!

    As for the babies being born 9 months after a black-out, of course! What else is there to do when you put the kids to bed early because there's no TV, and you can't read very well by flashlight...might as well do something fun! Our first 2 were born 9 months after our anniversary, so you could say we were celebrating something fierce! Then we had to change our planning otherwise that month would have become prohibitively expensive if all of the kids were born in the same month! Grin!

  3. I love the blackout erotica concept--sounds hot.

    Fiona, I often think about things people do in movies that wouldn't actually work because we don't understand our own technology enough. I think about it particularly in time travel. If I went back in time, I wouldn't be able to show anyone smart science. I benefit from the smart science that's been done, but I certainly couldn't recreate it. I believe there is a spec fic series about Society for Creative Anachronism people in the apocalypse--premise being that those people actually have taken time to learn the old school skills that would help if society actually did collapse.

  4. At once point, as the Internet became more and more popular, I swore I would never become dependent on it. Alas, I haven't been able to keep that promise. However, I think I am less dependent than some. For instance, we still have a fine collection of paper maps. I've seen too many errors in the computer based navigation systems to trust them (even if I had a smart phone). We don't watch TV, and I sometimes (alright rarely, but still...) do write longhand.

    If it were not for the need to keep up with my email and my blogs I'd feel a lot freer. I'm leaving for a two week international trip in early April, and I'm already obsessing about getting all my blog posts set up before I go. (I have responsibilities for three different blogs...!)

    Nevertheless, I think our generation (Daddy, Sacchi, Desiree, Garce and Jean, at least) would fare far better in the event of a huge electromagnetic surge than people twenty or thirty years younger! (That's some consolation!)

  5. Hi Sacchi!

    Nine days?? That would have been interesting.

    There was this TV show during the Cold War which you can still get on Netflix called "The Day After" which was a drama with Jason Robards depicting Lawrence kansas after a massive nuclear exchange with the then Soviet Union. When the first Soviet nuke arrives it doesn't explode over land. It explodes in the high atmosphere, lighting up the clouds with a soft, distant little "Boooom . . . " - and that's all. But that explosion is designed to set off a huge electro magnetic pulse that fries all electronics on the ground instantly, freezing cars and electrical systems and shutting down the grid instantly. A minute later the other rockets arrive, This is in fact the actual design a nuclear exchange was planned to take. High atmosphere. Then land.

    That little boom is one of the most chilling moments I have ever seen on TV.