We had a power cut at my office last week. It really wasn’t so bad – most of us ended up leaving early. But it was scary to be reminded of just how reliant we are on technology – we couldn’t do anything useful without our phones and computers.
When the lights went out, we stared at the blank monitors for a few seconds (some howling in anguish as they realised they’d lost a couple of hours’ work). Then we all got up from our desks and milled around aimlessly, until we realised we weren’t going to get any emails or phonecalls to tell us what was going on. Luckily the pub over the road was still connected to the grid…
The whole scenario reminded me of a recurring nightmare I have about how totally useless I would be in that standby sci-fi setting – the post-apocalyptic future.
I picture myself wandering the smoking ruins of a once mighty civilisation, wondering how the hell I’m going to cope without my smartphone, iPod and hair straighteners. It will be a disconnected, silent and frizzy future for me. And I’d have to pray I was wearing my glasses when the meteorite hit, otherwise I’d be seriously worried about finding more contact lenses in the rubble.
I like to think that as a ‘scientist’ I’d be vaguely helpful to the survivors – I might even have a slightly higher status and a nicer pod to keep my ragged clothes in. But in reality I’d probably just be looked down on as an ignorant ex-urbanite with absolutely no idea of how the technology that used to make my life so easy actually works.
In a way, this is an amazing testament to all of the stuff that makes the modern world so impressive. I don’t need to have more than a vague notion of how my TomTom works to be able to use it (although it does also help to be able to read a map when the GPS signal drops out). And I don’t need to know anything about all the illnesses that I won’t die from, thanks to good hygiene, drugs and vaccines.
But it’s also scary to think how little these advances have actually increased the average person’s understanding of the world around them. I rely on electricity, but I don’t really know how it’s generated. I use computers every day, and I don’t know the first thing about what’s happening inside them.
I’ll just have to hope that the internet still works after the apocalypse. Without Google and Wikipedia, I’ll be in real trouble – at least I’ve got a Swiss Army knife. As short, weak, half-blind science communicator, I don’t think my skills will be in high demand. Perhaps I can make a living writing historical stories about the incredible technology of the past, almost indistinguishable from magic…
In the meantime, I’m going to be more appreciative of my currently intermittent broadband and my HTC. I’ll say a prayer to the gods of technology (that’ll be the scientists then) and thank them for the gift of instant access knowledge – we don’t realise how lucky we are to have the freedom to be ignorant.