Friday morning started out like any other Friday morning – I woke up, put myself together, packed a lunch and headed into the office for another day full of emails and zoom meetings. Everything was par for the course until…someone from another department came into my office. I mean, they physically came into my office. Like, face to face! No teams, zoom, text, phone call or FaceTime. I was interacting with another living, flesh and blood person from another department! She came by to let me know that the network was down, across the nation, and my initial reaction? Pure and utter joy.
Backtrack quickly to August 14, 2003: I vividly remember standing at the Ticketmaster counter at Sunrise Records in the Bayfield Mall, where I worked at the time, looking up ticket information for a never-ending stream of customers, when suddenly the power went out. As with any power outage, there was the initial collective ‘gasp’, before the crowd realized we’re physically ok and then began to anticipate the lights resuming their normal function over the course of the next couple of minutes. Those couple of minutes passed, and then an hour, and then two, and finally the mall and all of its employees cleared out and went home for the day. The parking lot emptied, the surrounding restaurants and shops were barren, and none of the street lights were working. Anywhere. At the time we didn’t quite have the same tools for instant access to information that we do today, but it eventually came apparent that this was a wide spread issue, and the timeline for a resolution was a complete unknown.
The power outage that hit millions of homes, businesses and services would go on to last 41 hours and, while I don’t want to take away any of the challenges, strife and very real hardship that came along with it, for me it is a fond memory because it brought our neighbourhood and our friends together, without technology. We were all unplugged, free from social media, and those of us who could, stepped away from work. There were more people outside for block parties, backyard barbecues and street hockey than I can ever recall seeing before or since, and people were actually talking to and bonding with one another. I do recognize my fortune for not being in an elevator, subway, hospital, or otherwise dire situation when this event occurred, and for many it would have been tragic, so I do acknowledge that; but my personal experience was a positive one, and it’s something I was reminded of this past weekend, when much of the nation lost its ability to use their cellular devices. Provided we could protect emergency services, I think we should make it at least an annual event.
Fast-Forward back to today: born of the pandemic we are required to take our physical distancing further than ever and we now seem to have officially forgotten what it means to go about our days without technology. In many ways we actually can’t function without it, as proven by Friday’s events: concerts are cancelled because patrons can’t print tickets, businesses close because no one carries or has access to cash, and passengers are delayed because they can’t retrieve their ArriveCan documents. Frankly, I don’t want that world for our kids. I want them to have access to the convenience tools we have today, but I’d also like them to be able to survive on their own. I want them to perform the basic things like: cook without a recipe, get to the store without a map, understanding that ‘North’ is not the same as ‘Up’, develop fundamental math skills, and to hold a conversation without looking at their own image on a screen at the same time. Not to mention that Siri and Alexa are not suitable replacements for the vast amount of knowledge I can share on how to concur each Zelda game, nor can they deliver dad jokes with quite the same vivacity as yours truly.*
Just imagine if we could plan such an event. Imagine if we knew it was coming and could prepare and secure those necessary services properly so that hydro workers, technicians and repair staff weren’t in emergency mode, but rather they were granted a reprieve from their stressful day to day duties. We could still function through the preparedness of carrying cash, buying what we need ahead of time or printing our tickets in advance. We were, at one point, smart and capable enough to do it without technology, so why not again? We should, after all, probably share these skill sets with the next generation before the last phone book goes into print.
Imagine if everyone you know had their data services shut down for a day, or even a weekend. Through such an orchestrated event, we would actually be forced to solve some problems on our own for a change: navigate without an app, take whatever weather comes our way, and perhaps form an opinion to partake in a healthy, in-person discussion about what business raisins have in butter tarts, rather than just looking up and siding with whatever Reddit says to be the correct answer. I say: shut it all down now and again.
And while we’re at it (the view from this soap box is spectacular, by the way), let’s give people a break. It was fascinating to observe different reactions from different companies and managers, who were divided into either trying to find work to keep people busy, or recognize instead that, “Hey, productivity can take a pause for a day: head home and enjoy a bonus day with your family, loved ones, friends or time to yourself. Because, in the end, this break will actually result in even greater productivity upon your return.” Ah, yes: a better balance. We’ve been continuously pushed to the edge these past two years and it’s not getting any easier; a true break is more than justified. Sure, we have holidays and ‘time-off’ but we’re still far too connected through technology to not experience some unhealthy level of anxiety or stress; but if we all turned off our services, then we’d actually be given permission and self-forgiveness to fully and properly step away.
It was great to be out and about and conversing with people about something other than war, sickness and gas prices. Sure, it was inconvenient, but everyone I interacted with was accepting it rather pleasantly; it was the problem to solve in the moment and people enjoyed the challenge. How strange it felt to not get a response back immediately about what groceries to pickup, or that I couldn’t reply to the 300+ emails I had sitting in my inbox; strange, but wonderful. We went to go see a face painter, who had apparently posted on Facebook, which no one could access, that they had to cancel the event; and though the kid’s reactions started as upset, they ended up leading us on a different adventure we wouldn’t have otherwise experienced and Blizzards were enjoyed by all. We adapted, we overcame, we did pick up the groceries, and we’re still very much alive.
I don’t know that such a thing could ever occur, but on the other hand, perhaps this is the revolution I was born to inspire. So, with a sense of irony, I ask you, the internet: what do you say? Can we do it? Will you join in the revolution, or will you treat me like a Rogers customer and just shut me down? *….take that Siri.