Appreciating the Grid

Posted: June 3, 2014 in The Cyberpunk Chronicles

Narrator: A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.

Woman on Plane: Are there a lot of these kinds of accidents?

Narrator: You wouldn’t believe.

Woman on Plane: Which car company do you work for?

Narrator: A major one.

Fight Club (1999)

Being the discriminating creatures we are, we carry an internal yet rudimentary sense of statistics, which acts as a sort of guide in understanding (in a vague sense) what’s “good” for us. Much of our individual day-to-day decisions — where to eat, what to watch on TV, where to go, what to buy — are decided by factors of popularity and safety.  The latter tends to be grossly underestimated. For every new product, countless testing runs are done; these form the basis of data analyzed by armies of actuaries, who hold all but the absolute last word on that product’s safety. Everything from airplanes to weight-loss drugs have gone through this regimen. In effect, businesses have developed a Darwinian approach to product suitability, using parameters similar to the dialogue above: If a risk of failure has been perceived with an object, but the failure rate is low enough to avoid a threshold of scrutiny, then the product remains on the shelves. Otherwise, it is recalled and replaced. Issues of branding and marketability come afterwards.

This tendency to rely on statistics has made us complacent amid all this surrounding technology. That isn’t necessarily our fault, since we’ve been born into it. If things had not developed as they did, we could still be hauling water in buckets, instead of pouring it out from a tap. Progress is hardly ever linear. Watch a few episodes of James Burke’s Connections, and you’ll get an idea of just how chaotic and unpredictable the evolution of technology has been. For instance, the concept of underwear has gone through a drastic overhaul through the ages. It would be difficult for any mere mortal to mentally grasp all the physical concepts behind the gadgets we use everyday. Even if our schools tried to cram all the science into our brains (which they already do), only a fraction of the population would come close to understanding most of it. It is neither a good or bad thing; it just simply is.

Perhaps no other major technological innovation has been more so important than the development of electricity, and the electrical grid, in the modern era. It is also one that we quite possibly take for granted, most of all. In his book The Grid, Phillip Schewe points out that our power grid could just as easily have been steam- or water- based. Imagine all our machines, our mechanical beasts of burden, running on steam power. In fact, an entire sub-genre of science fiction, Steampunk, exists on such a “What If?” premise. However, a steam-based power grid would be too inefficient for our world as it is now. Thousands of Joules’ worth of steam energy would have to be pumped through ultra-tightly sealed vacuum tubes, to power a mechanical hand press, for instance. And by the law of diminishing returns, there would be no guarantee that all of the incoming steam would be used; a larger volume would have to be produced at the beginning of the cycle, resulting in bigger and more costly contraptions. The distances would be short. By comparison, electric currents run through wires with cross-sections far smaller than their thermodynamic brethren. Furthermore, because of Nicolai Tesla’s amazing discovery of Alternating Currents, this source can be leveraged to do a whole lot more. Dangerously high voltages can be modulated and distributed across several hundred square miles of civilization, and used to power all of our machines.

Other grids depend heavily on the electrical grid, as much as the human body is dependent on blood and oxygen to be able to survive. The Internet, most telecommunications and transportation networks depend on it. Our financial infrastructure, and indeed our very economy depends on electricity, allowing real-time decisions to be made in just seconds, instead of days. If the electric grid was shut down for more than a few days, more than just the world would stop, as it did back on August 14, 2003, when the entire city of New York was engulfed in a blackout that lasted for nearly two days.

Could we develop a more efficient power grid that’s less prone to shortages? Perhaps, but it might take a while to get there. The electric grid-based utility system has crept into every avenue of our lives, exponentially growing new synapses.  Statistically, its track record has been tried and true. It’s reliable, almost to a fault even as we’ve thrown everything into it. It’s in the background, humming quietly as we live our lives, watch our favorite soaps, fret over our daily dramas. But it is neither infinite nor perfect. With the way our appetite for consumption has been, fuel shortages are a real possibility. Forced outages could occur, as they already do in underdeveloped parts of the world. Civilization might very well be at a standstill, if it doesn’t altogether fall. This was the premise of the now-defunct NBC series Revolution.

Long before that happens, though, we ought to consider a low-cost alternative. We might even have to cut back on our lifestyle. At worst, figure out ways to wean ourselves off the grid, en masse. Because if not, a Steampunk-like future may be in the books for us — whether we like it or not. And that’ll force us to appreciate what we used to have, real fast.

Copyright © 2014 The Anabases

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