Blaspheming at the Altar of Technology

Written by Sven Eberlein
“The big question,” as Larry Dignan at puts it, is “how are we going to protect those big wires?”
An even bigger question that lurks behind the initial shock of having our cables slashed: Have we become too dependent on technology?text

Since the new Pirates & Teabaggers™ game has been getting so much attention recently, I thought I’d give a little love to another happening last week that was also fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but just like Pirates & Teabaggers™, offers great opportunity for deeper reflection and discourse.

I’m talking about the yet undiscovered saboteurs (or pranksters?) who cut four fiber optic cables in the San Jose area last Thursday, taking out phone and internet service for over 50,000 urbanites. That’s right: As the local San Jose Mercury News commiserated, it was as if time turned back a generation. No landlines. No cell phone service. No Internet connection or working ATMs.

Instead of taking the opportunity to ask some more fundamental questions about our growing dependence on these fiber optic cables — from talking with friends to keeping important medical records to writing this diary — the big chatter was all about whether the almighty cable has been properly guarded, camouflaged, and defended. So with just a hint of irony, let me use this forum to expand the conversation and blaspheme at the venerable altar of technology.

When Cindy Gilchrist’s 18-year-old son couldn’t text his friends before school Thursday in Morgan Hill, he turned to her and said, “Mom, I’m so alone.”

According to newspaper reports, the lesson we should take away from the recent sabotage act in the South Bay is that our fiber-optic cables aren’t secure enough. “The big question,” as Larry Dignan at puts it, is “how are we going to protect those big wires?”

“I pity the individuals who have done this,” San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis said, sounding like he was ready to hunt down the perpetrators of a heinous crime. If it appears like somebody’s artery had just been slashed, it’s because metaphorically, and perhaps even literally, that’s what happened. Not only are these cables the circuits through which most of our communication and human interaction is pumped through, but these days they are in many cases the only connections between us and our most private information.

It is, of course, the great irony of modern day society that our technologically advanced life with all its intricate and complex forms of communication could be brought to a screeching halt by a pair of wire cutters. Indeed, considering how hooked we have all become on this vast grid of cables powered by an even vaster grid of centralized electricity, it is not surprising that the knee-jerk reaction to this “little incident” would be a call to arms to protect our precious life lines.

There is, however, an even bigger question that lurks behind the initial shock of having our cables slashed: Have we become too dependent on technology?

A few years ago, at the dawn of the cell phone era, my friend and I took a trip to the beach. Upon our return to her car, she put the key in the ignition and realized that she had left the lights on and her battery was dead. I still remember my initial thought: “Cool, we’re going to have an adventure while looking for help!” As I opened my door to go searching for a kindred stranger with jumper cables, my friend told me to sit down. Next, she pulled out her brand new cell phone and dialed a road service number. After a short wait the tow truck arrived, and within minutes the driver had jump-started us — we never even left the car!

While it’s hard to argue that technology hasn’t made life easier and more convenient in many ways, it is exactly this collective surrender at the altar of convenience that has made us so vulnerable to something as seemingly benign as a day without cell phone or internet. Under the banner of safety and information we have entrusted many of our basic human instincts to distant wires and switchboards, designed and run by people we’ve never seen or met. Consequently, when someone clips the cable (or turns off the power) we feel personally violated, as if burglarized by an anonymous invader.

Like a muscle that hasn’t been exercised, our natural instinct to deal with uncertainty and adversity has lost its flex a bit. Hiding behind all our gadgets and apps we’ve delegated even our most basic human interactions, like asking for help or talking to friends, to the big easy in the ground. We’ve become so comfortable and complacent behind our computer screens that it’s no wonder we get indignant when someone pulls the plug. In a frantic rush to leave nothing to chance we have managed to outsource our most important survival skill, the capacity to engage with our immediate physical community.

And speaking of outsourcing, while a lot of great work has been done to retain net neutrality it is worth pointing out that no matter how democratic the internet remains, ultimately all those wonderful streams of connecting and networking still have to flow through the cables owned by the AT&Ts, Ciscos, and Googles of the world. It’s certainly not in their interest to shut down communication and very unlikely that they will, but I can’t help but think about this whenever I send an email to a friend down the street.

Is our growing dependence on fiber optic cables and wall outlets just a benign and helpful shift toward simplifying our lives, or are we relinquishing too much of our individual god-given ability to connect and interact to the machine? Maybe both? This is obviously not a new question, as it has been posed throughout the 20th century by movies like Metropolis and Modern Times, or books like Brave New World. However, I feel like it isn’t being asked enough anymore, as if the “Don’t be Evil” image projected by the new technology power players had settled the issue once and for all.

Not all is lost though. As most of the incommunicado South Bay residents got to enjoy a nice quiet day without beeps, ringers, and flickers, the few emergencies that were reported ended with the kind of antiquated gestures we used to see before our entire social lives got shoved into big fiber-optic pipes: One woman with a kidney infection was driven to the hospital by her boss. Another woman, in labor, went on an unannounced trip to the maternity ward with her husband. Most shockingly, neighbors were seen talking to each other face to face.

While vandalism should never be condoned for any purpose, last week’s “fiberout” still serves as a valuable reminder of how fragile and dependent our lives still are, even, and perhaps especially, in the free-flowing high tech world we live in. So instead of wrapping barbed wire around our hallowed cable, we might consider taking an occasional voluntary day off from high speed communication to exercise our inconvenience muscle. As we now know, the world will keep turning.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

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  • here here! your basic premise that we should all kick back and think about how much we have come to rely on fiber optics and virtual relationships is spot on sven.

    the other thing about this story that struck me though was tat as well as utilising the tech and software that run on fibre optics, we have enough of our regional, national, and international gdp relying on these networks that if they do go down, they are repaired as readily as a leaking faucet.

    this story, for me, wasn’t a tale of vulnerable we are, but rather a reaffirmation that our networks are more key to us than we are ever likely to recognise. the system of design, installation and maintenance must be pretty robust and its here to stay – which is remarkable as only a small minority actually understand the technology and would know what to do if a pile of severed cables wound up in their hands.

    the vandalism didn’t surprise me, so much that it was fixed within a calendar day!

    good to see people of south bay chatting to their neighbours, too!

  • well yes, the fact that we’re all so dependent on the machine that only few understand is one thing that has me worried. But I think my bigger worry is that people will forget how to chat to their neighbors, or that none of the neighbors is available anymore for chatting because they’re all glued to the computer screen.