Internet Death Imminent: Pileups on the Infobahn

  1. Federal Government: Exit, Stage Left
  2. Internet Death Imminent
  3. Frontiers are for Children

One moment I’m driving down the infobahn, reading about interracial sex between women and stallions, the next I’m stumbling around in the darkness looking for a flashlight so I can find a candle and a matchbook. The advantages of separate lines are obvious: our telephone is still working. So is our gas, and thus, should we need it, heat. At the University of San Diego, our telephones are on some AT&T computerized controls, which means that when the power goes out, the phones go out, too.

The next day I’ll discover that a few hundred thousand people lost power tonight. If our powergrid were designed in the same way as the Internet, that wouldn’t happen. On the Internet, each individual or individual organization is responsible for their own connection and their own lines. “Collectivism” only applies to the few lines that are collectively owned, providing ‘backbones’ down the infobahn. If one site goes down, there are alternative routes across the infobahn, providing adjacent sites with alternative, if possibly less efficient, net access.

The equivalent to the Internet for the powergrid would be neighborhood power supplies, each chugging along on their own, but able to ‘sell’ power to adjacent neighborhoods. If one neighborhood’s power source goes down, they can temporarily ‘buy’ power, if it’s available, from nearby neighborhoods. That’s the kind of flexibility the net is supposed to have. It’s not even a particularly revolutionary idea for powergrids. In Denmark, there are some 3500 wind turbines, two-thirds of which are used by “homeowners, farmers, and small businesses scattered across the country. The remainder are clustered into small wind farms, some owned by cooperatives.... the average wind turbine installed by individuals in Denmark is nearing 200 kilowatts, and it is capable of generating enough electricity for 50 to 75 Danish families.” (?)

The reason for this is that Danish law requires utilities to pay for any ‘excess’ power that individuals produce, and shunt this excess power down the line for someone else. It’s worked so well that Germany and the Netherlands are following suit. Perhaps this kind of ‘web’ thinking is the way of the future in all things, and not just computers. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here in the dark if I were in Denmark. The same high winds that brought down the power lines to San Diego Gas & Electric would also be pushing the local windmills into overdrive.

This doesn’t solve my current problem, however, which is that I’m rummaging around with a lit candle, trying to find a place to put it before the wax drips onto my fingers. I was on the computer when the power went out. On the infobahn, in fact, and I came to a screeching, uncontrolled crash. At the University of San Diego, assuming they have power... I stop momentarily to check, by dialing their computer system. The computer answers the phone. If I could talk computer talk, I could walk that computer walk right back onto the infobahn, but I can’t. On the University of San Diego’s computers, I am momentarily in limbo. Soon, Unix will discover my bloody corpse at the scene of the accident. It will burn the body, clean its little section of the infobahn and wipe the pavement dry. Unless a hacker gets there first and takes over, pretending to be me. But that’s unlikely, and is currently the least of my worries.

I was sitting at the computer, getting ready, in fact, to write another chapter of this book. I’ve been thinking that the book’s getting too dry, so I popped on over to for a little something to build readership--that’s where the horse came in. The lights, went off. The computer powered down with that annoying little death whine that computers make when they lose power. BRRRrrrrrmmmmmm... I’m dying... You’re data is dead... But before it could finish crying destruction, the lights came back on. The computer brightened up, the whine increasing in pitch happily, joyfully. The lights went off. BRRrrrrmmmmm... The lights come on. brrrRRMMMM happy joy!

This is one of the worst things that can happen to any electrical appliance, especially computers. On, off, on, off, it drives the bastards crazy. Fortunately, I’m prepared. All of my important, sensitive appliances are plugged into a ‘power strip’. Each power strip has a switch on it that I can turn on and off. So I turn the computer’s power strip off and run through the house turning off the one on the stereo system and the television/VCR. Hey, I’m prepared. San Diego, where I live now, has it easy. Back in Michigan the weather is much less cooperative, and power outages--and the more dangerous lightning storms--were much more common.

A few days later, I realize that even though the modem was plugged into the power strip for power, it remained plugged into the telephone system; any lightning hitting the telephone would, of course, juice right through the telephone line into the touchy innards of the modem, possibly piping right through into the computer itself. But this is before that, and I’m feeling pretty proud of myself for my incredibly intelligent foresight.

Modern appliances expect to be plugged in at all times. When the power returns, our digital clocks will flash at noon. One of them is smart enough to advance normally even while flashing, so you can tell how long it’s been since the power came back on. It’s the same one that is supposed to have a battery backup, but I took the battery out to power my guitar tuner. The damn clock never used the battery even when it was in; every time the power went out, even if only for a couple of minutes, the clock would dutifully ignore the fresh battery inside and flash at midnight when power returned.

The answering machine will have to be reset. It has no battery backup. Given that it’s only a glorified tape recorder, there’s no reason it couldn’t run off of a couple batteries for a few hours. What’s the chance someone’s going to call when the power’s down anyway? The VCR is going to lose all of its programming as well. It does have a battery backup, a nicad rechargeable, but the VCR is nearly ten years old and the battery has long since gone to nicad hell. RCA presumably didn’t expect the VCR to outlast the nicad, because the nicad isn’t able to be popped out and replaced.

This is what happens when computers lose power. They hate that. It is an abomination in their eyes. If you ever think that your computer is starting to boss you around too much, pull the plug. It will beg for forgiveness when you restart it. If the University’s computers go down tonight, which is not unlikely because USD’s power is notoriously unreliable, either I or John will arrive in the morning to find USD cut off from the network at large. We’ll know what happened. Anyone who isn’t in the computer department won’t, assuming that power has been restored by that time. They won’t know that the power went down, and even if they do, why should things not work when the power comes back up? As far as they’re concerned, it’ll just be that damn network acting up again. Or, in the words of the electronic mail client Eudora for Macintosh, “that pesky MacTCP”. (!)

This is life on the infobahn. When the University’s power goes down, the rest of the net cannot reach Cerebus. When the power returns, they still won’t be able to reach Cerebus until the network computers return to normal. The infobahn is a collection of millions of individual digital alarm clocks with no nicads.

It is currently 6:25 and 43 seconds. I’m reading my digital watch by candlelight. Which appliances still work? The stove. It runs on gas. The telephone. The digital watch. The Glock. The toilet. The water heater also runs on gas, although I’m still midwestern enough not to take a shower in a heavy storm. Even though there hasn’t been any thunder.

A heavy storm without lightning is unnatural.

I need my infobahn.

  1. Paul Gipe, The Real Goods Solar Living Sourcebook, 8th Edition, 1994, p. 140.
  2. When I arrive in the morning, I discover that USD managed to retain power the entire night. However, one of the hard drives went off-line because of a power surge; it isn’t surprising, that particular drive goes off-line when someone breathes loudly (and reading, I often breath quite loudly). I pressed the reset button until it gave up and started working again.
  1. Federal Government: Exit, Stage Left
  2. Internet Death Imminent
  3. Frontiers are for Children