BLACK CHOPPERS AT SUNSET: I came home the other night only to discover I’d been Smart-Metered. The paper door-hanger drooping from my front doorknob notified me that a SWAT team of technicians dispatched by Southern California Edison (SCE) had swapped out my old electric meter for a new one equipped with a two-way wrist radio and a ZigBee chip that one day will enable my appliances to talk to the Mother Ship on an hourly basis. My heart sank. And I’m still not sure why. It’s not like I have any peeps in the Smart Meter fight. On one side, you have PG&E and SCE, the utility giants who respectively brought us the nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon — strategically located over not one but two earthquake faults — and San Onofre, whose cooling pipes — or about 500 of them — are corroding so rapidly and mysteriously they’ve had to shut the place down. Even if they’re just reciting the alphabet, I figure anyone paid to speak for these multibillion-dollar acronyms must be lying. When they assure us, as they repeatedly have, that Smart Meters are good for the environment because they’ll enable energy consumers to save the equivalent of one power plant’s worth of electricity by monitoring their personal juice use on an hourly basis, I start looking for the spiked Kool-Aid pitchers. But on the other side, there’s the Black Helicopter crowd, which remains convinced that the Smart Meter is a conspiracy hatched by Big Brother — Corporate America + The Government = The Man — to invade our privacy and zap us all with brain cancer, using low-frequency radio waves. I’m not outright saying they’re crazy. But having spent a few minutes in their company, I have my doubts they know anything valuable enough to induce The Man to invade their privacy. Besides, when it comes to civil liberties and personal privacy, we already rolled over and played dead in the aftermath of 9/11. What we didn’t happily surrender to the New Security State, the ever-algorhyming Internet snatched up. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When I feel lost, alone, and that no one out there really knows me, I just click on Amazon. Those people know what books I want to read even before I’ve even heard of the authors. That may not qualify as a long walk on the beach at sunset with someone who laughs at all your jokes, but then, you don’t have to worry about tar balls.
Likewise, I’m torn on the health issues. Like a growing number of new appliances, like cell phones and wi-fi, Smart Meters give off low-frequency radio signals. But freaking out about Smart Meters — when most people use their cell phones enough to acquire an indoor tan from the display-screen light — seems arbitrary, capricious, and perhaps even disproportionate. Given all the radiation out there, it’s akin to getting shot with a squirt gun while swimming in the ocean and then complaining about getting wet. There is, of course, the infinitely cited study by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluding that cell phone radiation is a “possible carcinogen” for humans. On the Richter scale of danger, the WHO gave this radiation a “2B” rating. All that sounds pretty ominous. But then you read the fine print and discover that the WHO puts coffee in the same risk category. What does give me pause about side effects of cell phones and Smart Meters — aside from the fact that it seems everybody I know is coming down with a case of brain cancer — are the repeated assurances we’re given that they meet all Federal Communications Commission (FCC) standards. That’s like saying no banking rules were violated in the Crash of 2008, and, in fact, many were not. You’d be hard-pressed to find a federal regulatory agency more captive to the industry it’s supposed to monitor than the FCC.
I’ve reached that stage of life where I’m scheduled to have a midlife crisis, but because of the economy, I’ve been forced to seek out low-rent substitutes. If gamma rays could turn nerdy-wonk Bruce Banner into The Incredible Hulk — and no doubt one of the many archetype experts toiling at the Pacifica Institute can explain why, with the release of The Avengers, we’ve now had four cinematic representations of this transformative tale — then maybe I could get jolted into mutant superhero status by exposure to a more contemporary strain of errant radiation. Rather than the Hulk-like “Poodle mad: Poodle smash!” caused by gamma rays, maybe I could become a mad super-genius every time my Smart Meter went off, only to return to normal when it ceased. That might actually have the makings of a good comic book. But in the meantime, I face the imminent certainty that my appliances will soon be smarter than me. This reality, I suspect, explains the seemingly crazed resistance to Smart Meters. For the huge segment of the population still not competent to program the remote control of their multi-modal home-entertainment center, the Smart Meter reinforces their growing sense of powerlessness. Who doesn’t want to get mad and smash? The only real question is whether I’d prefer a gamma-ray bath or shower. When the day comes that my appliances finally start talking to each other, what will they talk about? And what will they say about me? Damn right, I’m threatened. Will my computer tell the toaster how I hit it? Will my remote control tell the refrigerator how I threw it across the room? And will the refrigerator seek retribution with a fit of “pique hour” conservation, serving me up lukewarm beer? Like many, I greet the dawn of this brave new world with angry trepidation. “Nick mad! Nick smash!” And I don’t need no stinking gamma rays.
In the meantime, if for whatever reason you want your Smart Meter removed, call 1 (800) 810-2369. If you say the Poodle sent you, maybe they’ll dispatch a Black Helicopter to come pick it up.