Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath by Ted Koppel
With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

This book was a mixed bag. Seems a great, if unintentional, case study in how fear of disaster and loss makes people more open to abandoning their civil liberties—by the end of the book, Koppel argues that maybe we really ought to abandon some of our privacy online to the government, for safety reasons, and he barely engages with the serious dilemmas this presents. To Koppel, it seems, the threat of a grid attack is so terrifying and catastrophic that no civil liberties could be worth impeding the federal government’s ability to prepare. Today in 2021, I think it’s very clear how authoritarians and wannabe authoritarians use exactly that fear to propel themselves into power. To not engage with this aspect of the premise strikes me as irresponsible.

I was also bothered by Koppel’s uncritical repetition of myths about people’s behavior after disaster. Koppel’s sources when discussing disasters and their aftermath are almost exclusively military or involved in the federal government. He takes it as a given that chaos will follow a disaster—repeatedly asking interviewees about how they will defend against looting, for instance. In one passage, Koppel states as fact that following a disaster, “stores and warehouses containing essential supplies… [will be] stripped bare in a matter of hours”. He does not cite a source here, just inserts this speculation—which is at odds with what the field of disaster sociology has actually determined.

Koppel appeals to a need for military authority, and treats the hypothetical millions left stranded by a power grid attack as either victims convenient for his narrative or malicious looters, but never people. One wonders, for instance, what Koppel expects would happen to the essential supplies “stripped” from the warehouses he conjures. To Koppel, it doesn’t seem to matter—the fact that they were no longer in their designated location is evidence enough of a catastrophic social deterioration.

Koppel would be wise to expand his sources beyond military authorities and to consult with scholars of disaster studies—those who have actually studied what happens in crisis situations, and who do not have a deeply trained pattern of hierarchical, authority-based thinking. I might recommend him Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell”, to start.

When Koppel isn’t suggesting we cede more digital liberties to the federal government or uncritically parroting patronizing myths about how people react in disasters, the book is good. He convincingly lays out the risk of an electrical grid attack and highlights how systemic issues, such as the electrical industry’s staunch opposition to regulation, amplify this risk. His profile of the LDS church was also quite enlightening for me, and acted as a great example of what a support network might look like (although, perhaps predictably, Koppel stops short of imagining what it would take for a public system as effective and well-stocked as the Mormons’). Unfortunately, those points could likely be captured in a few chapters, which means much of the book is either repetitive or suffers from the problems outlined above.

I’m glad I read it, and it has encouraged me to further consider my own preparedness, for myself, my family, and my community. But the book suffers greatly for Koppel’s unquestioned assumptions.