New York Blackout

Above: View of 34th St. in New York City during power outage which caused the 1977 blackout. Credit: New York Daily News.

New York Blackout

Above: Owners and employees of a sporting goods store on New York's Upper West Side stand guard outside the store with baseball bats as police walk by after the store was looted during the massive blackout. Credit: Associated Press/New York Daily News.

City view

Above: City view, 2016. Credit: Yiran Ding.

Man in city

Above: Man standing alone, 2016. Credit: Reza Sadeghi.


As is the case with many industrial sectors it is the mid-sized city which is under threat as many millions migrate towards the largest cites ("metropolitanization"). These in turn become massive global cities, world cities, or megalopolises. Indivisible from the megalopolis--its dematerialized heartland--is the hyper-city, the meta-city, the omnipolis, or the virtual city: the non-locale of online and electronic communications (VW: 72-73). This second component is a city-of-cities or a city of information (VW: 77). Many millions now "live" primarily in the de-territorialized (i.e., synonymous with dematerialized) virtual city (they live online on social media etc.). One definite threat to the fabric of city life is a consequence of the individual's tendency to be preoccupied with online activities: their body is present in the physical city but their cognitive attention is in another virtual and spectral locale causing a troubling disconnect (VW: 46). The urban human is becoming split: present and yet also absent from the concrete city. This sets in motion a trend towards "the disintegration of the community made [caused] by those who are present in favor of those who are absent, absent because they are connected to the Internet or multimedia (VW:45-46)." This disequilibrium of the body-mind will very likely bring about at some unknown future moment a catastrophic event causing city-wide chaos: the human psyche is being torn apart; the human is becoming required to be in two places (real and virtual city) at once which is obviously impossible. For Virilio the essential picture is of the rise to dominance of the virtual city (with the megalopolises also thriving) and all else drifting towards a state of decay and near abandonment (VW: 73). Due to "security threats" and the fear of terror attacks the city is characterized by "an aimless and permanent state of emergency (S&P: 137)." In the megalopolises the inhabitants are increasingly vulnerable to a "general accident" which would be comparable to a general strike in that numerous basic systems-amenities-utilities would simultaneously cease to function so plunging the people into chaos and creating a city of panic. The breakdown of the rule of law in any Western city remains likely, with the swift rise of the lawlessness rife in a failed State (or correct nomenclature fragile State). Factors which define the fragile state include: the loss of legitimacy of the State; loss of trust in democratic processes; widespread poverty; the presence of factionalized paramilitary armed gangs and militias who pose a definite challenge to the state monopoly on the use of force; organized crime carried on with impunity; the absence of public services. Such factors are obviously apparent in Bangui, Juba, Mogadishu or Sana'a. However, as Virilio reminds his readers, many of these fragile State indicators were in place in mid-1970s New York as the city drifted into chaos: the City administration was close bankruptcy causing the loss of basic amenities including refuse collection; criminal gangs operated with impunity; an electricity outage (the "New York Blackout") resulted in widespread looting, riots and the temporary breakdown of the rule of law. As a case study, New York of the mid-1970s allows insight into how a modern Western cosmopolitan city can very easily drift into/be plunged into chaos (SP: 137). The virtual city--the heartland of the megalopolis--is also fragile in that it is subject to complete shutdown by State control at any moment. The military forces of several States including the US have the capability to block, jam, or otherwise cause-the-failure of the Internet and mobile telephony for millions. A form of in extremis control that would amount to the "sudden militarization of mass information."