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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/24/22

Podcast Review: Blackout (2019-2021)

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John Hawkins
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It's Not Dark Yet -- Oh Wait, Yes It Is!

by John Kendall Hawkins

There's a lot of talk of off-gridding these days. Folks who want to get away from the electricity that controls our lives. The Internet. Social media. Twitter. Facebook. Meta. More and more AIs are taking over our "jobs" of perceiving and processing our experiences of the world. They were extensions and tools for our brains, but now they are beginning to influence what and how we do the cogito ergo sum thing. We are "lit up" all the time, overstimulated by electricity. Some philosophers fear we may be on the threshold of a dystopian nightmare, about to be absorbed into a hivemind blob we can't escape from, devoid of individuality and spontaneity.

Maybe we need some blackouts, some grid down time. Solar flares. I can still recall (vaguely) the blackout of the Northeast in 1965. Lights out. Folks perplexed, worried. What will we do? Some people blamed Bob Dylan, saying that had he not gone electric at Newport that summer, the gods would have stayed indifferent, instead of going all deus ex machina, and bringing in the Internet to control us. Pete Seeger almost went apoplectic with an ax, according to one representation of his rage, which supposedly symbolized the falling out Judas feelings so many folkies harbored toward the Bard. Rumor is he took out Rhode Island alone with the pull from "Like A Rolling Stone." Look at him now. Who's laughing? You?

Speaking of harbors. We're in rolling pearl harbors mode now. Pandemics. Climate change. Nukes. Democracy replaced with authoritarianism and fascism and strong man-ism. General Mark Milley and think tanks are already saying that democracy's kaput and that we're just dogpaddling around in the shallow end waiting for the tsunami to arrive. Just when we've given government-by-and-for-the-people a real good ride down the highway of history -- wham! there's a blow-out and we're hugging trees and going through the windshield deep into infinity, like astral projections going home to roost. Damn. If only Dylan had stayed acoustic. f*cker.

The US government has been quietly but consistently warning that our "infrastructure" is woefully vulnerable to attack by Russia (and probably China, too), which means they'll be a pearl harbor for that, too. Yep. You can see it coming. Like that dubious ransomware farce involving Colonial pipelines that created an evil windfall for Big Petroleum. Russians have a lot to answer for. I was watching The Great on Hulu the other month. Some great sex scenes. (See my review.) But I've read that our grids aren't as vulnerable as we like to think they are. It's not like a baseball catcher going without a cup, making vulnerable his dangling ganglia to foul tips out of the mitt and into the gravy. Our electric grids are a "hodge podge," according to Ashley Dawson, author of People's Power, which delineates "The Fossil Capitalist Death Spiral" we're in and advocates some green solutions and socialist politics. (See my review.) Dawson writes,

The US grid is a ferociously complicated system, by some estimates the largest machine in the world. There are roughly 3,300 electric companies that provide power to individual citizens and commercial users of power in the United States"The grid was built to withstand all but the most freak accidents. Yet, as Lovins rather poetically put it, "possible rare events, each of vanishingly low probability, are infinitely numerous, so we live in a world full of nasty surprises."

Freak accidents. Read in bright lights: rolling pearl harbor event coming. Cofer Black's on it though.

There are " three main systems: the Eastern Interconnection, which serves the area east of the Rockies and part of northern Texas; the Western Interconnection, which encompasses the states west of the Rockies; and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which covers most of the Lone Star State. If you were thinking of taking out the grid, or one of these three interconnections, stop it. That's terrorism. And though we could use the relief of a nice grid downtime with candles again and and the sound of your lover's voice in the pleasant dark with quietude devoid of electronic hums, and wine. Also turn off your mobile. You don't need the updates. Just keep making love.

Texas and ERCOT "suffered" a serious outage last year. Jeez, it was tough. The governor was especially upset, as it put the execution of Black men way behind schedule, which meant more unplanned last meals for more unwanted humans in the Lone Star state. As a Texas "practical engineering" blog put it:

When the storm did hit on Valentine's Day, it really was one for the history books. Three major facts to illustrate this point: First, it was extremely cold"It was the coldest many places had practically ever been. The next point is that it was not just a local event. The storm had significant impacts across the entire state of Texas and beyond. Finally, the duration of frigid temperatures was just so long. Large portions of the state were below freezing for more than 7 continuous days. That might not sound like a lot to those of you in northern climes, maybe even a welcome respite. But, in most parts of Texas, that is unheard of.

It was a Blue Valentine's Day. And if you had blue balls, you froze them off. Cattle moaned and steamed on the ponderosa, and muttered to each other, "I never-r-r thought I'd long to be tossed on the bar-r-r-bie, but, Jesus-us-us, it's cold."

Texas came to mind. It wasn't for the North or the South. Meaning it was for the South and had slavery and later Juneteenth. And Jim Bowie is said to have hid under his bed at crunch time at the Alamo. Pie Alamo. San Antone. Santa Ana and Roseanne Roseannadanna. But Texas came into consciousness most recently as I was listening to a podcast -- Blackout. It's a two-season production starring Rami Malek. The IMDB blurb goes:

Academy Award├é « winner Rami Malek stars in this apocalyptic thriller as a small-town radio DJ fighting to protect his family and community after the power grid goes down nationwide, upending modern civilization. BLACKOUT stars and is executive produced by Rami Malek and produced by QCode and Endeavor Content. BLACKOUT Written and created by Scott Conroy. Directed by Shawn Christensen.

They family starts out in a small New Hampshire town and eventually makes its "escape" to the nation's one operating grid -- and the promise of a return to "normality" -- in Texas. God help us. I could only think of the Black Mirror episode with the Black History Museum where white visitors are invited (encouraged) to throw the switch on the execution of a Black man preserved forever in a holographic application.

Rami is DJ Simon Itani, spinning platters, and sputtering groovy advice on good living, and has, by that token, a certain degree of power, some control over the narrative he sees unfolding when the blackout occurs. He lives there with his wife, Carla (Chloe Brooks), and their two teenagers, Izzy (Seychelle Gabriel), a girl, and Hunter (T.C. Carter), a boy. The town of Berlin, New Hampshire becomes the focal point of small town community and self-sufficiency as the nationwide outage continues unabated and without word from the government as to cause or remedy. Berlin just goes on and on, day by day, as resources dwindle, tensions rise, and political factions wrestle for control of the parochial chain-of-command.

It's quiet up there along the Canadian border, but Itani notes the difference between quiet and silence. He goes, "Funny thing about silence -- if you sit with it long enough you might hear something that was there all along." The trailer adds the requisite promise of tension:

Season 1 establishes the townspeople of Berlin, who become a microcosmic set of the nation. Season 2 sees some intrepid resisters, including the Itamis, to the authority established in Berlin by an older fascist woman, Madeline and her barking, enforcing dogmatists, escaping to Boston and Ipswich and then on to Texas.

Many people may be familiar with Rami Malek's outstanding work, as systems hacker, Elliot Alderson, in the cult classic TV series, Mr. Robot. The malaise that affects Elliot in Mr. Robot makes him a kind of Everyman. There's something wrong with the system and the way people are tired into it and he has the skills to disrupt it, but at a great cost. Similarly, Simon Itani represents a kind of hip, educated and balanced individual who begins to "lose it" in Blackout due to the breakdown of the system and how it affects his family especially. Mr. Robot takes on the teeming chaos of urban living amidst mostly visual information overload, while Blackout returns us to hearing -- our own thoughts again and each other.

The language of Blackout is banal and, often, cliche-ridden. Is it a deficit in the script-writing? Or is the script written to reflect the downward trajectory people have taken as they get caught up in the online shortcuts, memes, tropes, repetition of tweets, predictable snarks, and language that doesn't adequately reflect the sophistication of a deep engagement with the world. It's true folks don't go around quoting Schopenhauer very much, but a reasonably well-educated person listening in to the dialogue of Blackout -- with the exception of the Itanis and a college instructor named Wren -- might think the political philosophy of representative democracy might be too complex and abstract for their drive-through minds. So much of what one hears coming out of their mouths is trite and hackneyed that you wonder if this is what we've become -- near-bots who talk sh*t and opine, "It is what is" -- and the nationwide blackout becomes a symbol of our failure to operate on full watts as we head for a new Dark Age. If we lost all power indefinitely starting now, how would it affect you dear reader/listener?

I tried to find parallels to the story. HG Wells War of the Worlds. George R. Stewart's Earth Abides. But there's no war, per s with aliens from outer space. No Russians either. It's an inside job. It does have some of the Earth Abides vibe. The silence is a character. But there's only one guy left in Abides. And the title is from Ecclesiates. It's a shrug at our loss. f*ck us. We let it happen. History warned us enough times. We shrugged. Earth shrugs back and the Sun Also Rises. f*ckers wh killed the Canon should be shot out of it -- like circus clowns. Simon Itani says, above, "Funny thing about silence -- if you sit with it long enough you might hear something that was there all along." Sitting in the rubble of it all. Getting Darker.

Yes, it turns out that the blackout is not caused by Russians (can you believe it!?) but by one Julian (Andre Royo), who goes by the name of "The Rook." You know, as in chess. He's a red light district bulb missing some filaments. Royo hams up his Boston accent and ends up reminding me of childhood thugs I wanted to punch the lights out of. (But, like Rodney Dangerfield says to Sam Kinison in Back to School, "Hey, I'm a lover not a fighter.") Julian, oy. When he tells some of the survivors about why he did it, you wanna bury his pall. He fucked up big time. He tells Wren and the Itanis:

Julian: Excuse me, after some coordinated analog attacks on the power grid in the real world, the plan was to withhold access to Black Start until we were ready to re-engage the grid. Two weeks. It was only supposed to be for two weeks. Enough time to wash away the structures and systems that were failing us while allowing us to rebuild quickly"When it was clear that the reboot has suffered a catastrophic failure, the group fractured. They broke into factions. Rooks took control of their pawns and pawns, held territories like their own personal fiefdoms. The last several months were unfortunate.

Wren: Unfortunate? You broke the world, and that's all you have to say.

Holy Chucky Cheese! What a dipshit is Julian. And he reminds you of some of the powers that be -- Trump, sure, but Pence, Biden, McConnell, Nancy -- the whole overstuffed clown car. Unfortunate!? And here we are at history's end, the real one -- not Francis Fuckyomama's comic book Hegel version -- and we get shruggleberry hounds going, "How unfortunate." The short: Julians' no Elliot Andersson. Mr. Robot showed restraint. But then they cancelled the show anyway.

And if downed grids nationwide weren't bad enough, wouldn't you know that the only one up again is the Lone Star State's. Now that's dystopia. Talk of the regionalisation of the Internet is currently underway. Zones of influence. The Chinese, the Russians, the Europeans, the Latin-based peoples, and North America all with their own Internets, now that the value of hivemindedness and managerial containment hs been recognized by the deep state powers that be -- armies of Julians at work to f*ck it all up in the name of geopolitical chess maneuvers in the dark. Reminds me of me days as a systems engineer, admiring the simplicity and power of switches over routers, the MAC address over the IP -- you'd take it every time. Plus I had a CCDA as a creative outlet for techie wonking around. LANs, MANs, WANs -- my vision wasn't limited and electricity was my friend.

(By the way, before I forget, the production is from QCode, which uses an immersion sound system to make you feel you are amidst the dipshits. Realistic that way. They tell us not to operate farm equipment while listening.)

I've been thinking a lot about rolling pearl harbors lately. A pearl harbor is when the sh*t hits the fan suddenly and catastrophically and you're taking on water, like the Titanic, and naively cursing yourself for not having booked a voyage on the Lusitania when you had the chance. Now imagine a series of such occurrences in your life in quick succession, and, in your case, there's no naked Kate Winslet from the upper deck for you to paint with your manly but hungry artist brushes. We'ew running out of Muses, taking on cold water, while the band plays on -- the Nero Quartet, Grosse Fugue. My favorite complexity in the world.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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