When the lights go out, mobile phones are our lifelines

John
John Gushue
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Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? That’s the bit of wisdom from Joni Mitchell, who was singing about parking lots and Paradise, or slamming screen doors and swinging hot spots … something like that.

The phrase came to mind as my family joined tens of thousands of others this week in struggling to get back to normal after rolling blackouts, a blizzard and then a couple of power disruptions that knocked out the lights and made our house, as my wife put it, as cold as St. Peter’s tombs.

We’ve been in similar situations before, with both snowstorms and hurricanes. The lights go out, and you wonder if it’s for a moment or an eternity. Either way, you adjust.

There have been many storms before (surely I wasn’t the only one this week to reminisce about the legendary blackout of 1994, nor the one a decade earlier), but this one felt a little different. In part, that’s because of how we communicated with each other through it all.

I gained a bit of an insight into this a few days ago, when I was doing a hit with host Anthony Germain on CBC Radio’s St. John’s Morning Show. Anthony made the point that while he could get accustomed to being without electricity, he found himself feeling anxious when he realized his cellphone might go dead.

That prospect, not the loss of heat, hit him hardest.

I know what he means. While the wireless network in our house went down for the count, my wife and I took turns getting updates with our mobile phones — not just for the latest news and updates from the authorities, but also for contact with friends and family.

I guess in previous years, we used regular phones — landlines, that is — for this kind of contact. In a pretty few short years, mobile phones have taken their place, especially smartphones, which come with programs and access to digital information that was the stuff of sci-fi just a couple of generations ago. (Think about the Tricorder they used on Star Trek.)

These days, when I say “my phone,” I think most people know I’m talking about the one I carry around with me, not the corded one in my kitchen.

It’s remarkable that in a generation, the very idea of what a “phone” is has changed so much … even if the one thing I don’t necessarily do on it is place a call.

Our phones now allow us to text to our family, or to share our activities on Facebook, our photos on Instagram, our reaction and thoughts on Twitter. We can check weather forecasts, read the news and often do the fundamentals of our jobs.

In short, we feel connected. We lose our sense of isolation. We feel better as we adjust to the forces beyond our control.

It was during hurricane Igor, in 2010, that I became attuned to how important mobile phones are for not just disseminating information (Twitter came of age here during that event), but for maintaining social connections.

This week, I’ve never seen such a local reliance on social media for what we in the news business call “survival information.” Our phones were lifelines. Many of us may have lost access to electricity, computers and all that, but with mobile phones, we were in the flow.

Hence the anxiety about what happens when a phone goes dead. During the blackouts or, more precisely, after the blackouts, we made sure our phones recharged. If we ran errands in the car, we charged up then.

I mentioned Anthony’s moment of dread. Mine came when I heard that Bell Aliant was having trouble with the power supply of some of its cell towers.

That made my mind wander to dark places, and not because I’d be unable to scroll my Facebook feed. No, it was the broader implications that worried me, because I know how reliant our entire society has become on digital information.

A few days ago, I read a mocking note that someone posted about how the warming centre at St. John’s City Hall included WiFi among its amenities.

I didn’t find it funny; I actually thought it was a very useful thing to offer, right up there with warmth and food. When another family that was lingering in the dark came over to our house for an impromptu dinner (something all of us should do more often, we realized), they brought along their devices to charge up. Mi casa es su casa, and my WiFi is your WiFi.

A fire is roaring in our fireplace tonight as I type this, warming up our dimly lit living room. We’re making the best of things. We’re getting used to change. We’re adjusting. We’re looking forward to normal again and, more than ever, normal involves a mobile phone.

John Gushue is a digital producer with CBC News

in St. John’s. Twitter: @johngushue.

Organizations: Bell Aliant

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  • Vince Charron
    January 09, 2014 - 09:14

    Cell phones are at a very real risk of service failures as we see too often. Amateur Radio (ham radio) always works and is probably the most reliable means of communication when all else fails. Vince Charron, VA3GX/VE2HHH Director of Communications WWW.RAC.CA https://www.rac.ca/en/amateur-radio/faq/

  • Vince Charron
    January 09, 2014 - 09:11

    Actually this is a fine example that misleads because cell phones are also at a very real risk of service failures. Amateur Radio (ham radio) always works and is probably the most reliable means of communication when all else fails. Vince Charron, VA3GX/VE2HHH Director of Communications WWW.RAC.CA https://www.rac.ca/en/amateur-radio/faq/

  • Vince Charron
    January 09, 2014 - 09:09

    Actually this is a fine example that misleads because cell phones are also at a very risk of service failures. Amateur Radio (ham radio) always works and is probably the most reliable means of communication when all else fails. https://www.rac.ca/en/amateur-radio/faq/