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Los Angeles Times Special Report : On the Fault Line : Southern Californians Take Stock of the Earthquake : Stirred, Not Shaken : A few reflections on technology and earthquakes


Cyberspace is the last refuge of the sleepless. Staring up into the darkness in the wee hours Monday morning, I wrestled with that classic insomniac's choice: whether to lay there some more or just give up and see what was happening on the Internet.

The earthquake hit before I could get out of bed. Afterward, my wife and I inspected our house with flashlights. The place was built during the Harding Administration by a minister whose idiosyncratic carpentry has withstood the test of time, and when it seemed clear that we still were stuck with his tenacious handiwork, we settled down to wait for day.

Monday appeared to be a setback for technology in Los Angeles, a reassertion by the forces of nature that their forbearance is always temporary. We can see this from the dead, and from the devastation and dislocation the quake has left behind. But we can also see it among the living.

All over town, the TVs and hair dryers, Stairmasters and steam irons, computers and cash machines sat silent, and in the pre-dawn hours my wife and I huddled like refugees from the 20th Century around the dim light of some yahrzeit candles I had idiotically purchased for back-yard barbecues, on the theory that the little glasses the candles come in would make them wind-proof.

As the day wore on, shopping foreclosed, the young deprived of MTV, everyone's high-tech paraphernalia inanimate for a change, it seemed that what the insurance companies love to call an act of God had reimposed, however briefly, the one thing technology and the pace of our lives had previously made impossible: the Sabbath.

We weren't ready for it, of course. My wife and I didn't sing songs or recite to each other the poetry of Emily Dickinson. We have a nice domino set, but neither of us could remember how to play. It was too dark to read and we were too wound up for Scrabble. Instead we hugged and talked and sniffed around like bloodhounds for gas leaks. We set up our earthquake supplies and inventoried the batteries. We tried calling family with the cellular phone, then finally sat down and accustomed ourselves to the tinny drone of a transistor radio, idle but not at rest.

I, dare say, felt likewise. Thus did Los Angeles pass a day without technology, sort of. Oh, the hospitals functioned, the news got out, and the Delphic seismologists at Caltech, using all their sophisticated equipment, affirmed with their usual perspicacity that, yes, there had been an earthquake, and, yes indeed, there might well be another.

But in the everyday sense, this earthquake was a Luddite's dream, smashing freeways, cutting off power and phone service, and rendering the elaborately abstract tasks that most of us perform impossible--or at least ostentatiously useless. It threw us back on yesterday's technologies (there is always a technology), like radio.

Even real work had to wait. To the relief of some of my wife's more anxious patients, dentistry at her office was postponed; the compressor that runs the high-speed equipment was temporarily knocked out of commission. Toothaches would have to submit to palliatives.

It struck me that we were prepared for the earthquake, but not necessarily for the technological interregnum that it would bring, which was not unlike the times in the middle of the night when you can't sleep. I imagined that a bourgeois couple like us 100 years ago would take turns singing arias and playing the piano. We'd have duets all worked out, a whole routine.

On the other hand, technology is what has made it possible for us to be a bourgeois couple, instead of eking out a living thatching houses or selling old wool. Technology made room in the bourgeoisie for lots of people like me and helped see that we reached adulthood to take our places there. Like the romance of the outlaw, the lamentation of technology is largely an indulgence of the privileged.

And so I'm not ashamed to say that what I missed most during the night of the quake was my computer. I imagined sending a single wryly evocative but ultimately reassuring piece of E-mail to a whole list of friends and relatives around the world. And what was going on in news groups--forums, really--like alt.california and la.general?

Surely there must be an Internet mailing list on seismology; inquiring insomniacs want to know.

It should be obvious by now that the capacity of computers for wasting time is unsurpassed. Yet who's to say what's really a waste? Consider that one Calvin Ogawa posted the following to alt.california, unerringly date-stamped Jan. 12 by the Internet:

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