Life Unplugged

About a month ago, I had a mishap with my laptop and was unplugged for almost a week. My old trusty MacBook Pro is on its last legs. Apparently the graphics card crashed and while the computer started up, the screen stayed black. And unlike older models, the graphics card on these macs is soldered on to the motherboard, so the whole motherboard had to be replaced.

I’ve had it back for over a month now, but since yesterday, my screen keeps overheating and the display turns yellow, then pink and starts fading. I keep touching the back of the machine to test the temperature and if it feels very hot, I instantly shut down the machine. This post, therefore, has been written in fits and starts.

When it happened the last time, I shelled out approximately $500 to get it fixed. Now that’s a fairly big amount in the US, but in Pakistan, where the exchange rate is Rs. 103 to the dollar, this is more than a month’s salary (unless you’re in the corporate sector, which I’m not).

That’s the downside of this sad story. The upside, other than the fact that I am going shopping for a new Mac this week, is that I remembered. I remembered life before the computer took it over. I remembered what it was like to put pen to paper, to stand straight up and speak to people face-to-face and not via 140 characters (though I’ve come to the conclusion that I am a tweet-a-holic. I keep assigning hashtags to real life events. facepalm). I spent a pleasant few days catching up on physical chores that I had been neglecting for days, and then sorting through memories from boxes of memorabilia from storage. I sketched. Boy, do I need practice. I’m more used to holding a mouse in my hand than a pencil now.

This second scare, however, is making me wonder how we would survive if we were actually to shut off power and communication to the world. I saw the first season of ‘Revolution’ (not impressed) and wondered if that was really how life would end up if Karachi suddenly went dark. Especially since Karachi—well, all of Pakistan really—is used to a phenomena particular to South Asia: load-shedding.

‘Load Shedding’ isn’t a phrase my non-South Asian friends will recognize. I don’t know who coined it, but it’s used throughout Pakistan to describe a formalized, systematic power shutdown. Like most emerging third-world countries, our demand for power far outstrips its supply. To balance the city’s needs, our supply corporation ensures ‘adequate’ supply by routinely shutting off power to large blocks on a regular schedule.

So, every day between 11 am and 1 pm, and between 5 pm to 7 pm, we know that we won’t have power. Things get better in the winters (such as they are) because air conditioners and fans aren’t running, but in the summer, we often get power only half the day. We’re used to it now. I’ve been here over 25 years and I’m grateful that the load-shedding is now structured, not unannounced.

We wouldn’t have to worry about lawlessness or looting either. Neighborhood shops rarely have electronic locks or surveillance on their premises. In smaller communities, it’s normal practice to leave the store wide open while the owners go off for prayers.  And donkey carts on the streets of Karachi are a familiar sight (even more familiar in Lahore and smaller cities). Labor is cheap, so most of us don’t have dishwashers or dryers, vacuum cleaners or electric ranges (all our ranges run on gas). Our water heaters also run on gas, though as the price of gas goes up, these are being replaced by solar-powered heaters.

No power should change things, however, and not necessarily for the worst. We would be a nation, for example, that works during daylight hours almost exclusively. We’re already approaching a terrifying state of corporate hours that far exceed normal work hours. At my last job, I was at work at 8 am and rarely left before 7 pm. That would change dramatically in more ways than one—there would be an end to the marketeers, the advertisers, the PR companies that have taken over our industries. I’m a little light-headed at the thought. No ads. No billboards (how would we print them?). Oh, glory. No movies either, but wouldn’t that just energise theater?

We’re used to crazy traffic, terrorist attacks, lawlessness, a broken-down transport system (I swear, some of these buses could run on air) and long hours without power. Despite all of this, we function. Lahore has been suffering a shortage of petrol for the last seven days, and while there has been some unrest, the reaction in most cases has been to go out and buy bicycles.

A power and communication breakdown would really affect the most affluential members of our society—the 0.99% that lives a first-world lifestyle in a third world. They’re the ones carrying the smart phones around, the ones that can’t take the heat under any circumstances. Even our bureaucracy wouldn’t be wildly affected. Most government offices still work with piles of paper and ledgers, not computers or automation of any kind. Life would slow down considerably. Would that be a bad thing?

This would be life without phones, without Twitter, without the internet. And even though our next class of rulers would be anyone offering solar power, I think I could live with it.

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