By David Henderson
In Praise of Modern Technology
Early Saturday afternoon, the electric power at our home in Pacific Grove went out. We were out at lunch when it happened and when I came home, I thought it was a neighborhood-wide thing, something that happens for a few hours at a time a once or twice each winter. But I saw that the neighbors on both sides had lights on. When I walked back to my house, I noticed that our fuse box had been ripped away from the side of the house. I called Pacific Grove and Electric on my cell phone and worked my way through the automated menu to report the problem. That was about 1:45 and the recorded message said that PG&E would have someone there by 4:30. “Yeah, right,” I thought. But, at about 3:15, a PG&E man came out, looked at the situation, and told me (1) I needed an electrician and (2) because of the hazard, he needed to cut off the power. He assured me that once the electrician had done the fix, we could call PG&E and they would come by within a few hours to do an “emergency reconnect.” (His best guess was that the cause was a too-high truck driving on our busy street and yanking the power line that crossed the street.)
I tracked down an electrician in the yellow pages and he asked us to take pictures of the damage so that he, coming from Salinas, could know what parts to buy. We did so and e-mailed them to him from my iPhone. He got there with the right parts by about 5:15. His work was done by 7:30, but he charged us only for his original estimate of 2 hours at an emergency hourly rate plus parts. He didn’t charge us for the almost 1.5 hour round trip between Salinas and Monterey. Thanks, Devon Fehn. The PG&E man showed up at about 10:30 p.m. and by 11:00 p.m. we had electricity again. Thanks, Adam I-don’t-know-your-last-name.
Those 9 hours without electricity, though, reinforced in my mind the importance of having it. I had a lot of juice left in my computer and so I did a productive 30 minutes of work: I had been planning to do 2 hours but I didn’t want to use the juice in case I needed the computer for something else. I used some of the remaining light to do the day’s crossword puzzle and to start reading a book that I’m reviewing. By 4:45 p.m., I stopped and turned on the Warriors’ game on the radio. By then my wife came home: she had gone to Starbuck’s with her computer to work and be warm. We heard our beloved Warriors trounce the Atlanta Hawks and end their road trip with 6 wins and 1 loss. (I had anticipated 4 wins at most.) My wife and I also had a nice conversation without the distractions of modern life. Interestingly, part of our conversation was about what life in Britain was like when people didn’t have electricity. I was reminded of something I had written in my review in Policy Review of Bill Bryson’s book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Of course, I couldn’t go on the web to find it and show my wife. (I could have with my iPhone but I wanted to preserve power.) Here’s the paragraph of my review that I had in mind:
Indeed, improvements in technology were so important that the one chapter Bryson devotes to something other than a room in the house or a physical area in or around the house is his chapter on the fuse box. Electricity truly revolutionized life. Bryson writes, “The world at night for much of history was a very dark place indeed.” A good candle, he adds, “provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt lightbulb.” Although Bryson makes a good case for how important lighting was and is, he would have made an even stronger case had he drawn on the pathbreaking work by Yale University economist William D. Nordhaus. In a study done in 1996, Nordhaus found that failure to adjust appropriately for the plummeting cost of light has led economic historians to dramatically understate the growth of real wages over the last 200 years. That one invention, plus many others, led to a burgeoning middle class.
Thinks of the things we couldn’t do. We couldn’t watch the game on TV. We couldn’t use our modem, although it was handy having an iPhone. We were careful about opening the fridge and freezer too much for fear that food would spoil. When I went to clean the cats’ box, I needed to carry a lantern with me. Every time I went into a room, I reflexively turned on a light, with, of course, no effect. And that’s just when we were without power for only 9 hours.
Electricity is part of the warp and woof [I think I used that term right: I’ve wanted to use it for years] of daily life. I love it. It’s not exactly modern technology, which is why I at first put quotation marks around the word “modern.” But iPhones are modern technology and, of course, they depend on electricity.
I’m one of the few people I know–I suspect Don Boudreaux is another–who figuratively pinches myself frequently at the wonders of modern living in what is still a somewhat-free economy. Thanks to all the people, known and unknown, dead and alive, who helped bring these wonders to this small-town boy from rural Canada.