Sandy’s Aftermath Shows We Can’t Stop Working

In the digital age, not even a blackout can stop us from plugging in

Half of Manhattan spends its nights ensconced in darkness. Parts of Staten Island and New Jersey are in near ruin along with other hard hit areas of New York. Power outages cover large swaths of the East Coast. And yet, we can't seem to stop working.

Perhaps one of the most interesting observations in the days after Sandy is the speed and ingenuity with which New Yorkers and East Coast denizens returned to their daily grinds. The quest to salvage the work week has been well documented. BuzzFeed has an user submitted picture post of makeshift offices across the city where couches have turned into cubicles and kitchen tables have become conference rooms. Digital ad agencies set up a series of emergency offices at the houses of co-workers lucky enough to have power. Here at Adweek, we've constructed our own individual bureaus and a temporary office to cobble together a print issue and iPad edition under peculiar circumstances. 

This behavior is a direct consequence of our obsessively connected digital age where now years of constant electronic tethers have conditioned people to always stay in touch and, of course, never stop doing their jobs regardless of adverse conditions. This week, Bloomberg Businessweek's Christopher Bonanos wrote a piece titled "Can You Do a Day’s Work on a Cell Phone?" (filed from lower Manhattan's dead zone and written all on an iPhone, naturally) posturing that, with a solid landline and a few changes to browsing habits, one can get real work done on a 3-inch screen. Clearly others caught on as pictures appeared on the Internet after the storm of powerless New Yorkers huddled outside closed Starbucks stores hoping to poach some of the coffee chain's free wireless Internet.

It's something I experienced personally this past Tuesday when an evacuated investment banker and myself scoured coffee shops and restaurants in a Queens neighborhood for a useable WiFi signal. In a crowded Dunkin' Donuts, we laughed at our ridiculousness while precariously balancing our laptops to send a few "critical" emails … but we sent them anyway. Always be connected.

Today, Gawker leaked an internal email from the Madison Square Garden Company, requiring employees—even those "dealing with personal damage and health issues"—to find their way into work or risk losing personal and vacation days. This example, though it is certainly an outlier, is one of the unintended but very real consequences of our digital age where always being on is not just expected, but often required to the detriment of some.

All in all, our digital tools have been an overwhelming help leading up to and after the storm. Online evacuation details may have helped to save lives. Social media has kept us connected, and while platforms like Twitter were not without their shortcomings, the social network has been invaluable in helping to coordinate and disseminate information about relief efforts (according to Twitter, between Oct. 27 and 30, tweets mentioning the Red Cross increased 30 fold).

While a strong and resilient work ethic is certainly nothing to be ashamed of—and, in many situations, provides those displaced by destruction with a necessary distraction—it's a telling sign of our digital lives where even widespread blackouts can't stop us from plugging in.