In November 2012, a huge chunk of rural Victoria was plunged into a profound technological darkness.
A fire at the Telstra exchange disabled mobile phone coverage and internet access for thousands of people in the state’s south west, knocking out vital services like ATMs and triple-zero.
Thanks to an electrical fault, the veins and arteries of the region melted into a “horrific” pool of plastic and wires, says a local mayor, rendering the police, ambulances, fire brigades and even the local grave digger uncontactable.
A freak lightning strike then took out an Optus tower as well. Bodies piled up in morgues. Elderly residents couldn’t activate their medical alerts. Residents ran out of cash and struggled to buy groceries. Many businesses closed temporarily, or were forced to accept IOUs, as technicians worked around the clock to reconnect thousands of cords.
In little more than three decades, even tiny towns like Casterton and Heywood, populated mostly with farmers, have become dependent on technology, veritable slaves to the digital age.
RMIT University senior lecturer in electrical and computer engineering Dr Mark Gregory, who last year published a study on the aftermath, describes the scenario as “post-apocalyptic”, and says it reveals just how reliant upon technology our society has become.
“If it had gone on longer, it would have really become a problem,” Dr Gregory says.
“We just can’t switch off in that way anymore. We’ve moved beyond that. We’re now part of this global digital economy, for good or for bad.”
Glenelg Shire mayor at the time, Karen Stephens, whose area includes the towns of Portland, Casterton, Heywood, Dartmoor, Merino and Narrawong, says it was the most vulnerable residents, such as the elderly, that suffered the most during the 20-day saga.
“There’s no question about it, how reliant we are on technology in everything we do,” Ms Stephens says.
But even in the midst of the blackout, for which Telstra is still paying out compensation, there was a silver lining, as the community looked up from their screens and “pulled together”, the former mayor says.
Her teenage son was distraught that he couldn’t battle his Xbox friends online, but for his mother it was a taste of freedom.
“We spend far too much time on technology,” says the local councillor, who before talking to The New Daily had just emerged from a business meeting to find 47 new emails on her smartphone.
“People found they had a lot more time to do things. They were interacting a lot more. Families were doing more activities.”
“It’s a shame the power didn’t go out with it – the TV would have gone off.”
A phone-free haven safe from interruption
Despite the hardships, there are some Australians who deliberately eschew technology in some of its most insistent forms.
Lord Howe Island and its less than 400 residents choose to go without mobile phone coverage, preferring their idyllic island lifestyle to be free of constant interruptions (although faxes, landlines and internet are allowed).
“I am anti-phones on the island,” says local teacher Bronwyn Tofaeono, who has lived on Lord Howe for 18 years. “It’s a real oasis not to have phones, but it does take some getting used to.”
“Sometimes is would be nice to be able to send a ‘can you grab some milk’ text, but it just forces you to be more organised,” Ms Tofaeono says.
“I do use my mobile on Lord Howe Island but only as a torch!”
The age of dependence
Tech futurist Morris Miselowski, a self-confessed lover of all the latest gadgets, admits we have become “so devoted” and “so addicted” to these devices.
“They now form a part of who and what we are,” he says.
The Telstra fire exposes our society’s weakness, at a time when we are slowly transitioning to what is called ‘The Internet of Things’, whereby everything we own will upload and download information.
“Can we live without technology? The answer is we can’t in today’s society. We are so embedded,” Mr Miselowski says.
“Something as small as a router can take out an entire nation. There are cables that literally run between nations to carry all the data between them. What happens if that goes down?” he warns.
The key is to control technology, to master our addiction, rather than using it as “an oxygen tank” from which we must take regular gulps of air, he says.
The futurist is a stronger supporter of tech sabbaticals — the growing trend of short breaks from screens on weekends or public outings or for days at a time.
Psychologist Jocelyn Brewer agrees that technology can be destructive when it plays into our vulnerabilities, but says it can be an enormous power for good if we develop a “healthy relationship” with it.
Adults are being quickly left behind by a new tech-savvy generation of digital natives, for whom blinking screens and instant gratification is the norm. In some primary schools, there are kids using virtual reality goggles, while the adults who teach them struggle to use email, Ms Brewer points out.
“Seriously, I’m not even joking. The reply-all function is something that still evades a lot of people.”
She hopes this next generation will be allowed to use the latest iPhones and iPads in classrooms to learn, while also being taught the dangers of “hyper-connectedness”.
“There are huge benefits, but as with anything, when the application of particular technologies is used in a way which plays into vulnerability or into the hands of people who misuse it, then it can go awry.”