Three days ago, after hearing about the blackout in New York, Toronto, and several other North American cities, the first thing that came to my mind was "Holy Shit! What if this is another terrorist act! We are in a big trouble!"* Fortunately, that was not the case, so here I want to write about my second thoughts. More specifically I want to underline two important trends that were highlighted by the blackout.
During the blackout several big cities were almost paralyzed. Not only electricity was out but also there was no water (at least in many cases), flights were stopped, inter and intra-city transportation was halted, in short, the infra structure that supports life in these big cities was out of the loop for a short while. In fact, if it wasn't for small inventories of back up supply—e.g. the food and water in the refrigerators or stores—or if the blackout lasted a few more days, we could have witnessed a humanitarian crisis. This brings me to my first premise, that the stable living conditions that we all take for granted and whose existence we never question can be easily destabilized, moving life to a non-equilibrium mode of operation where the simplest facilities of daily life are questioned. That is a setting where our concern is no more the 0.1% decrease in stock market index, but next day survival.
Another surprising fact is that the cause of this crisis has not been anything extraordinary. Even though not yet clear (to my knowledge), it seems that one of the power generators in the network has failed somehow and has destabilized the whole power grid of the North East. Sooner or later we will hear about the reason for that failure, nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine that ignoring a simple maintenance work, a human failure, or a raccoon that chewed a cable, have caused all the trouble! This comes to my second point, that we live in a very interconnected world, where very small events in one part of the world can have huge impacts on another part. In fact, the growing population and technology in the last couple of centuries have hugely increased the level of global interdependence, compared to older times, making us more and more influenced by events happening far from us in time and space.
I think these two trends have far-reaching consequences that need more attention. From how we do science (e.g. going into more and more detail, inside sub-fields, rather than thinking about the interactions between different sub-systems), to how we think in every day life (e.g. what are the events I should pay attention to?), these trends may require important paradigm shifts, but those discussions need other postings.
* I guess I don't think in English very often, so this is the translation of my thoughts in English :)