In early November of 1965,
at the height of the cold war, 30 million people living in the most densely
populated region of the United States experienced a cascading power failure
which blacked out almost the entire Northeast in less than fifteen minutes.
Rising to the occasion, New Yorkers assisted each other in a spirit of
cooperation and community uncharacteristic of ordinary city life. Twelve
years later, in the summer of 1977, the New York metropolitan region experienced
another massive power outage, but this time the popular response was quite
different. Devastating riots and looting engulfed the poorer sections
of the city, inflicting enormous economic damage at a time when New York
City was already on its knees.
The Blackout History Project
seeks to reconstruct these two dramatic social responses to large-scale
technological failure by using the World Wide Web as a research platform
and historical forum. What did the blackouts mean to the people who lived
through them? What challenges did they pose to the electric utility employees
who had to find ways to prevent their recurrence? What did the blackouts
reveal about the social dependence on, cultural construction of, and engineering
practices behind a mature technological system? What role does failure
play in the evolution of technologies and the cultures that foster them?
These are the questions that guide the Blackout History Project as an
experiment in public memory, historical research and scholarly presentation.