When disaster strikes, you can't pack the Internet
I know tall buildings are supposed to "give" in high winds, but when the light fixtures start swinging from the ceiling, you begin to doubt your layman's knowledge of structural engineering.
My "bug-out bag" was packed and waiting by the door next to my boots. The tub was filled, the cooler was packed with ice and I was brimming with anticipation to strap that Gerber machete to my right leg. Admittedly, there's little reason to have a machete in a New York City hurricane, but I'm a boy and a boy who's seen far too many zombie films, at that. Besides, Sandy had arrived and she was proving to be a very fickle house guest.
"Honey..." I shouted to my girlfriend in a concerned-yet-hopefully-compassionate voice. "Get off the laptop, pack a change of clothes, put on some sensible shoes and get ready to boogie outta here." I couldn't tell if she was tweeting or working on legal documents, but I needed her to have a modicum of preparedness should the fecal matter hit the ventilator. I have no problem with streaming episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but you’re not allowed to do so until you’re ready to evacuate.
The lights flickered. The computer that was streaming WNYC briefly glitched out and we lost the signal for a few seconds. My girlfriend’s eyes widened and, half-jokingly, she asked, “What’s gonna happen if we lose our Internet connection?”
One of the initial military objectives for creating “the Internet” was to have a communications system that could remain in place in the event of a disaster. When the telephone system rolled over and crapped itself during 9/11, the Internet was the only way I could communicate with people. I was able to connect with friends in Manhattan and Brooklyn for damage assessment and relief coordination. A friend in Nevada let me know that fighter jets were scrambling to action. People on the west coast, Asia and Australia were able to touch base to find out if I was alright. IRC (remember that?) became a way to get people help.
Even though that was a “post-bubble” era for the Internet in 2001, the Web was still years away from being seamlessly integrated into our lives. The "cloud" didn’t exist. People kept maps in the glove compartments of their cars. At the most, you had 10 or 20 phone numbers in your cinder-block cell phone (the rest you still had memorized). Those early days now feel like a generation ago, rather than a mere decade. The Internet was a convenience, then, not a crutch.
Today, almost all my media comes through the IV of the Internet. We don’t watch television in my house; our news comes from NPR (streamed) and the Twitter/Facebook feeds of people that I know in journalism. I make about 12 minutes of phone calls a month; the rest of the time, my phone is simply a net-connection that fits in my pocket. Hell, I couldn’t even tell you my parent’s phone number without the help of Google Contacts.
In this ultra-connected life we lead, most of us are little more than our avatars. If the power is out, the Internet is out... and, by proxy, you’re out.
My go-bag by the front door is a model of its kind: packed with maps and enough MREs and water for us to stay alive for three days, a hand-crank radio to keep us connected to the broadcasting authorities, a waterproof notebook containing handwritten contact info for a select group of loved ones, and my travel/banking information to keep us stable (assuming the grid was operational).
But as I listened to the rain pelt the windows and the news reporters squawk on about impending doom and destruction, I realized that there was a necessary component I hadn’t considered when packing my bag.
In an emergency situation, you don’t pack up grandma’s heirloom collection of decorative teaspoons. But you do want that faded, treasured picture of your family in your wallet; you want some tangible artifact of the life you once led.
I had none of this and I know I’m not the only one. When clouds of destruction are literally bearing down upon you, it’s important to consider what you’ve stored in the virtual-cloud counterpart of “safety.”
I stood in the kitchen clutching the bag that could keep us alive for the next three days. She was holding a laptop that held “shareable” proof our last few years together: the version of “Rainbow Connection” that I had recorded for her; photos of us in Cancun the night before a 50 hours back tattoo session; her manuscript of the new book she’s writing. Maybe it was time to find a few photos to place in a wallet—that simple fold of leather that I haven’t carried in two decades.
I repeated the question back to my girlfriend. “What do we do if the Internet goes out? Well, I guess we’ll have to go back to playing scrabble and backgammon on a physical board. And we’ll have to find a way to tell our stories rather than just sharing them.”
We’re fine now: power, Internet, hot water; all there. I've shared them all with people who can get here.
However, I’m reconsidering what I pack in my bag. I like being alive, but I’m loath to rely on the Internet for proof that I was once living.
Brian Grosz is an actor and musician living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow him on Twitter @doctorgrosz.