Ayurveda teaches us: “as is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.” Stuff happens pretty much the same way whether on a very small scale, as in subatomic, or a very large one, say cosmic.
So here’s the microcosm: I have a so-called “smart” phone that, when I got it four years ago, was very smart indeed. Since then, several times a day, it has been subjected to countless improvements, otherwise known as updates — security patches, glitzy new capabilities that no one asked for or wants, repairs of really glonky mistakes that lurk in the code — that have steadily diminished its reliability and usefulness. It now takes up to a half hour to get started, and every once in a while announces that it is tired and is going to take a nap. (Come to think of it, we are getting more and more alike.)
Recently it did that to me — that is, took a sudden nap — while I was using it to navigate heavy traffic in downtown Washington, D.C. This caused me to panic briefly about how I was going to drive out of an area I have been driving into and out of, with no digital assistance, for 40 years. But I’m okay now. This same phone gives me random warnings that I have exhausted my data allowance, or not, or maybe soon; that there is a tornado watch in a county I never heard of, or an Amber alert in a galaxy far, far away. Neither the people who made the phone or the people whose network it’s in seem able to discover who is driving it (and me) crazy, or why.
And now, a few examples from the macrocosm: On February 13, The National Weather Service experienced a “catastrophic” failure of both the primary and backup routers that send virtually all its products — forecasts, warnings, radar images, maps, just about everything — to the satellites that distribute them to the public. None of these products was available, in the entire United States, for three hours, a period during which a blizzard was pummeling the East and torrential rains were threatening the country’s tallest dam in the West. You might not think this a big deal at first, the forecasts aren’t that great anyway, but forecasts are not the NWS’s only important product. Air travel, for example, requires data — winds aloft, the location of fronts, etc. — so that pilots can plan their flights, estimate their times and calculate their fuel consumption. The sudden absence of digital assistance in these matters, like the crash of my navigator-phone, can induce feelings of panic.
These outages — of our cell phones and our weather forecasts and everything in between — have quietly become a frequent, familiar and largely accepted part of our lives. (Lambert Strether of Naked Capitalism calls it “the crapification of everything.”) The macro systems that control the worldwide operations of great airlines, for example, are ever more frequently these days, like my smart phone, taking unexpected naps that may be hours, or days, in duration:
- On January 29 Delta, KLM and Virgin Airlines at New York’s JFK Airport were all experiencing delays caused by technical issues. Back in August, Delta suffered a systemic breakdown after a brief, small-scale power outage in its operations center. The airline canceled more than 2,000 flights over three days.
- On February 1, a computer malfunction snarled traffic at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport for hours, causing delays or cancellations of more than 100 flights at one of Europe’s largest transportation hubs.
- On February 8, United Airlines said it was experiencing delays at airports across the country because of a system wide computer problem affecting flight plans.
The root of most of these problems is that systems have been forced to grow far beyond the natural, logical, immutable limits to their growth. Systems that are too big are lashed together to make even bigger systems; systems that are too small — say for example a booking app that looks for cheap fares — are allowed into the main system like deer prancing around on a freeway, sometimes with terrible results. Really old systems are lashed to cutting-edge programs, and if you’re ever had to work fast and under pressure with your aged grandfather you might have an inkling of what could happen.
It’s a cancer. And it’s spreading. And no one is saying, whoa, let’s shut this system down for six months and fix the damn thing, because that would be inconvenient and would cost a lot of money. Instead they tell the coders to fix it, patch it, splice it, work around it, make it last. Which allows the tumor to grow and grow until one say the whole system dies.
An outcome that will redefine the words “inconvenient” and “expensive.”