Coping Without Electricity in California's E-World : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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January 28, 2001 Coping Without Electricity in California's E-World By MATT RICHTEL

AN FRANCISCO, Jan. 27 Thousands of people in Silicon Valley are seriously addicted to speed the pace at which information flows, that is. But when the electricity dried up, those hooked on computers, handheld devices and the like faced a dose of cold, cruel reality.

In chunks of an hour or two (an eternity in these parts), the citizens of Northern California's e-world realized how dependent they were on being wired, how caught up they were in a culture of ever-flowing data and e-mail. And how emotionally unprepared they were to have the network go down.

"I just have to tell you, I felt lost," said Rosanne M. Siino, whose power failed for two hours last week, leaving her without e-mail and pacing nervously at her home office in Scotts Valley, near the Santa Cruz mountains. "Thank God for my cell phone."

"Everything we do is dependent on technology," said Ms. Siino, a marketing consultant who telecommutes to San Francisco, 80 miles away. But her woes go beyond the practical. She has a short attention span, she acknowledged, a need for Internet speed fed by a culture grown dependent on a round-the-clock stream of digital blips and pulses.

"When you're not on computer," Ms. Siino said, "you may as well cut off your arm."

Indeed, for many people, the rolling blackouts have caused more culture shock and annoyance than real crisis. True, small businesses lost a few hours of income and faced the cost of rebooting computer systems. And big businesses have doubts about investing in a state that cannot keep the lights on. Earlier this week, the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group reported that 100,000 workers at its member companies had been idled by the blackouts.

But stores are not reporting a run on batteries or Coleman stoves. People see the blackouts as an irritation, an outrageous failure of planning and politics, perhaps a business conspiracy, but something that should pass, like a once-a-decade hailstorm, or an earthquake that knocks a few cereal boxes off the shelf.

And just as reliance on technology brings power failures into stark relief, technology also often rides to the rescue. Armed with cell phones, laptops and handheld computers, people can switch to temporary, mobile mode when the power fails at their homes, offices or home offices.

Or perhaps, at their cafe offices, like Simple Pleasures, a neighborhood spot in the Richmond district of San Francisco, which went dark for an hour last week. Its toaster and espresso machine down, the cafe was reduced to selling regular, low-tech drip coffee, but life and commerce did not stop for patrons. Several kept chatting by cell phone; one woman, oblivious, typed away on a new translucent orange Macintosh laptop.

But Ahmed Riad, the owner, was nearly boiling. He figured that if the blackout extended through lunch he could lose $200, no small amount to his small business.

"This is pure frustration," Mr. Riad said. "The government should at least do the minimum, and the bare minimum of the job is to deliver electricity."

Thirty miles south at a Redwood City Internet music company called Liquid Audio, employees repaired to a nearby coffee house to meet by natural light. Andrea Cook Fleming, a Liquid Audio executive, had an estimate of just how long Californians' patience would last: "the battery life on a cell phone or laptop," about two and a half hours.

But Ms. Fleming also says Northern Californians take blackouts in stride because they are accustomed to the threat of earthquakes, mud slides, fires and floods. A rolling blackout, with a 15-minute warning, cannot hope to compare. "It takes a lot to impress us," she said.

For some residents, technology companies were not merely getting a reminder of how reliant they were on electricity. They were getting a comeuppance.

Krissy Keefer, who runs a dance theater and has protested the expansion of dot-coms and rising rents into San Francisco, asserted that all this was not just bad planning but "the chicken coming home to roost" for power-guzzling tech companies.

Northern California has its fair number of adherents to feng shui, the idea that physical surroundings must be arranged just so for energy to flow freely. When the energy fails to flow, it suggests, perhaps, that the state did not arrange its power plants too well.

But residents should be counting their blessings, said Anatole Zelkin, owner of Friedman's Microwave Ovens in San Francisco. "You cannot imagine what it does to a man to survive in minus degrees temperature without electricity," said Mr. Zelkin, who immigrated from Russia in 1975.

While the Russian climate provides a brutal reality to those without electricity, he said, Northern California has built in its own vulnerability making it as vulnerable as a far less advanced society.

"The life here will stop if there is no technology," he said. "You cannot withdraw money, you cannot find information, you cannot process credit cards. People don't even have cash."

He shook his head, adding, "We will not survive two or three days."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

-- Martin Thompson (, January 28, 2001

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