Paul Andrews

News Cycle: Digital Lockdown in the Wired Age

In News Cycle on February 18, 2010 at 1:15 am

In this wired universe we live in, we’re supposed to have ubiquitous access to comprehensive information on a real-time, as-it-happens basis. And until a light plane takes out a transmission tower, we do.

After a private plane apparently took a left instead of a right after takeoff in fog yesterday morning at two minutes to 8, things in our Palo Alto apartment went into what might be termed Digital Lockdown. It was kind of spooky, because in the past when the power went out, you still had (corded) telephone. You still had (transistor) radio. And you had news media who could draw together information quickly for an up-to-date, comprehensive report.

Now you don’t. Now you’ve got pretty much a black hole. For all the Twitter, 3G, Wi-Fi, Facebook, blogs, cell phones and other always-on communications available at our fingertips, if you were in Palo Alto yesterday you couldn’t find out a damn thing about what had happened to take the whole city’s power out.

After the incident happened, we checked El Camino Real and discovered pretty much everyone else was down, too. But nobody knew what had happened.

I’m not sure if AT&T’s network went dead during the power outage. I was still getting bars, although they were in wild roller-coaster mode — you know, 5 bars then none, then a couple, then 5, then none. Even if the network was up, getting onto it was a hopeless task.

When I went to Twitter, I got an “unable to connect” error. Same with e-mail. The iPhone was registering “3G” as active, but it was dead to me. I switched 3G off, which under normal circumstances helps. Still nothing.

We have friends with land lines, but you know what? Cordless phones go dead when there’s no power. The one friend we know with an old-fashioned corded phone never did pick up, even after we left town in search of a signal. And why would he? Who wants to hang around a place with no lights, heat or Internet? A corded copper line is useful only if other people have corded copper lines as well.

The truth is, though, hardly anyone has land lines any more. Statistical latency prevents a true assessment of just how deep the cellular-only trend runs, but anecdotally we all know how few people in metro areas use anything but a cell phone for calling.

Finally it occurred to me to go out to the car and turn on the radio. There I got a brief bulletin stating that a plane had crashed in East Palo Alto, taking out a power tower. And that was it. No details on when power might be restored, who was affected, etc. etc.

The best information strategy turned out to be walking outside and strolling around, talking to people, comparing and collating information. Gradually some details emerged — something about a Tesla CEO being killed (incorrect), and the plane taking off in fog, and Stanford University hospital being without power. By noon — fully four hours after the incident, a scratchy (obviously wireless, maybe even handheld radio) report was being made from campus by a KCBS Radio (San Francisco) correspondent, explaining the measures Stanford Hospital had taken in the wake of the outage.

Within a couple hours of the outage, we’d had it with Digital Lockdown. We took off for Santa Cruz — sunny, warm, beachy and — most of all — connected Santa Cruz.

There I found out that a few folks had been twittering about the incident, and there was a hashmark #planecrash. Too bad the people who could most use, and were most interested in, the tweets couldn’t get them in Palo Alto. Even so, #planecrash was like water-cooler info, random bits that didn’t really add up to anything meaningful.

When I worked for The Seattle Times, we had a newsroom mobilization plan built around the Worst Case Scenario, which we always depicted as a Boeing 747 crashing into the Space Needle. Essentially it called for full-onslaught reporting by all news staffers, which editors would pull together for that day’s (when we were still an afternoon newspaper) or the next morning’s paper. Or even a momentous “Special Edition.”

I haven’t seen Palo Alto newspapers yet (the accident happened at the worst possible time for an a.m. publication), but they’re so thin these days it’s hard to imagine they’ll have room for extensive reporting. I will say this: The best place for information on the accident is the “newspaper” site of paloaltoonline.com — the Palo Alto Weekly. It beats #planecrash like a carpet.

The incident underlines how much the online universe still needs a newspaper metaphor for providing news and information. With all the stuff on the Interwebs, who woulda thunk? After all, we live in a Connected World — until something really significant happens, anyway.

  1. [...] talks about his experience with losing all of his high technology toys when the lights went out in Palo Alto Wednesday. The [...]

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