What Would Really Happen if the Lights Went Out

The central conceit of NBC’s Revolution is that electricity and electronic circuits stop working. Society collapses, militias are formed, and in the future pretty blonds who can wield a bow and arrow will save the United States.

Foreign Policy imagines what would happen if such an event occurs in real life, through the prism of India’s catastrophic blackout and a similar event in the US.

The most important thing about both events is what didn’t happen. Planes didn’t fall out of the sky. Governments didn’t collapse. Thousands of people weren’t killed. Despite disruption and delay, harried public officials, emergency workers, and beleaguered publics mostly muddled through.

The summer’s blackouts strongly suggest that a cyber weapon that took down an electric grid even for several days could turn out to be little more than a weapon of mass inconvenience.

“Reasonable people would have expected a lot of bad things to happen” in the storm’s aftermath, said Neal A. Pollard, a terrorism expert who teaches at Georgetown University and has served on the United Nation’s Expert Working Group on the use of the Internet for terrorist purposes. However, he said, emergency services, hospitals, and air traffic control towers have backup systems to handle short-term disruptions in power supplies. After the derecho, Pollard noted, a generator truck even showed up in the parking lot of his supermarket.

The response wasn’t perfect, judging by the heat-related deaths and lengthy delays in the United States in restoring power. But nor were the people without power as helpless or clueless as is sometimes assumed.

Fascinating thought experiment about life after a total hack. One of the things that bugs me most about NBC’s new show is that it feels too exaggerated — weeds are too overgrown, life is too dire, the government completely collapsed, etc.

Interesting premise, but terrible execution.

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