Spending four days without power last week left plenty of time for quiet reflection. One thing I thought about during this lull was our society’s reliance on critical infrastructure and the products and services we’ve built around it. There was a great write up last week musing, among other things, about our willingness to pay high multiples for essentials in times of crisis. I could have made a similar case about hot water and cell phone service, but as I thought about it more, I kept coming back to the same question:
What defines critical infrastructure, and how do we come to rely on it so much?
I wonder what did the first blackout feel like in New York. You know, the blackout that happened, say, 2 years after the first power station began operations in Manhattan in 1882. I am not sure if this ever happened, but if it did, I imagine that people simply brushed it off as a forgettable nuisance. I can almost hear a mustachioed gentleman, top hat and all, exclaim — “Ha, I knew we could rely on this frilly electricity. See now.” — before going back to his dinner by candlelight.
The life must have gone on nearly uninterrupted in that first blackout, and rightly so. Back then we were still accustomed to getting by without power. The horse carriages continued to plod along the streets. Wood and coal continued to heat our homes. People must have simply unpacked and lit their candles and gas lamps. No one thought that blackout calamitous or life-threatening.
Alas we are not in 1884. Our reliance on electricity has blossomed into life-critical dependency. A blackout is a newsworthy and exceptional occurrence and the power companies, their sins of monopoly aside, have done a tremendous job restoring service to the millions of customers affected by, and we say this word now without a shadow of pretense, this major disaster.
There was none of this urgency for the cell phone carriers though. If you went to the website of T-mobile last Tuesday, the website was business as usual with plans and devices splattered in flashy colors all across it. Getting to support took some digging around, and even then they were clueless. No representative of a telecom provider stood by Mayor Bloomberg during any of his conferences. ConEd, the power company serving New York City, sent their CEO.
I couldn’t shake the sense that the companies offering cell phone service act like they are offering electricity in 1884, while the customers who rely on it are actually relying on it as if it’s 2012. Cell phones are no longer luxury items they were a decade ago when we had landlines and pay phones. They are a part of critical infrastructure, and people, like senior citizens stranded in high-rises, rely on them to get out.
So it’s not an overstatement to say that people’s very lives depend on getting those reception bars. It may be hard to accept this because we use the same device to post Instagrams and call 911. But if anyone should understand this, it’s the companies offering these services. The consequences for failing to do so are getting more dire by the year, and there is a lesson here for all of us involved in defining and designing products used by millions of people.
This lesson, I believe, lies in appreciating the consequences of what really happens when our products fail. The difference between missing a few Instagram updates in 2012 (or opting for candles in 1884) and getting into a life threatening situation because you can’t reach emergency services is stark. I only wish that one day the products serving our critical and non-critical needs comes to reflect that difference.