Technology Oncology: The Spreading Plague

Captain? You can stop pounding on the GPS receiver now. I don’t think it’s working.  (Photo by images)

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.”

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9 Responses to Technology Oncology: The Spreading Plague

  1. Tom says:

    Yes, indeed Mr. Lewis, the rot that has pervaded the solid infrastructure of pipelines, water and sewage treatment facilities, the all-important electrical grid and the military, has now invaded electronics. Sustainable ANYTHING is a myth, a nice feel-good bedtime story we tell ourselves, while our neighbor’s infant cries loudly.

    Complex systems self-destruct. The old movie Brazil was a great parody of the idea. Aging electronics often don’t “align” with new parts and glitches, loops, and crashes result. The recent news bears out your observation, but it goes a bit deeper.

    Our environment is degrading, Fukushima is still an extinction level fiasco and we’re tending toward nuclear war. Wide-spread crop failures, droughts, floods and other disasters are beginning to impact the overpopulation issue, but not enough to drop the steady increase in our numbers.

    Nevertheless, I enjoy reading your essays.

  2. Mike Kay says:

    However I would add accuracy of information to the casualty list. Digital temperatures rarely correlate with actual measured temps., at least in my experience. The differences are regularly up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Precipitation reports aren’t any better, and as for accuracy of reporting-during any official response reporters dutifully regurgitate groomed press releases from “information officers”. I have no idea what passes for fact today, but it seems to relate to the opinion that reality is what self appointed gurus say it is.
    Such institutionalized “information” can largely be dismissed as the ravings of delusional minds.
    One realizes that such delusion and retreat into fantasy are dissociative actions of the clinically insane.
    If you would like to know what kind of world to expect when it is fully run by certifiables, recall that before Reagan, such people were monitored and hospitalized to minimize their destructive impact on society.
    The global industrial experiment has failed, now we are forced to deal with the results of this failure, but to the lever pullers, it’s a sunny day in transhumanist heaven.

  3. Kate says:

    On a slightly different tack, deliberate software “improvements” drive me nuts. Software “upgrades” become a necessity after some time period, and then, in addition to struggling with often buggy “new, improved” versions of a perfectly adequate program, you have to relearn the whole program, resulting in hours of lost time and inefficiencies due to senseless changes in menus and keystroke commands. Some programmer wanted to scent-mark the program with his own changes and untold aggravation and lost time are the result.
    Everything I see of our behavior and the behavior of our cousins in the wild reinforces my opinion that we are just jumped-up chimps who are in way over our heads — we just don’t have the bandwidth to respond to today’s levels of change, complexity, and speed, at least without profound losses in other areas, like deep appreciation, empathy, restorative silence and much more.

  4. Ken Barrows says:

    In other news, my iPhone charger crapped out after eight months.

  5. Apneaman says:

    All that slapping one system onto an older system and throwing in an endless series of patches and fixes reminds me of biological evolution. The human brain is kinda like that. Think of ever only having one PC with windows for your entire life with one operating system installed on to the last one again and again. There’s no formatting and clean install for each new and improved/complex OS. Windows 3.1 and 95 are like the ancient reptilian brain, 98, XP and Vista make up the limbic system and windows 10, the latest and greatest, is the neo cortex. 10 is really clever, logical and a fast problem solver, but as soon as, 98, XP and Vista see something shiny, all reason goes out the windows window.

  6. Rob Rhodes says:

    I lost the battery to my old flip phone last summer and when I went to the dealer they told me I might find a suitable replacement on e-bay. I chose not to look at all and instead abandoned my cell phone. I don’t miss it.

    Each time I drop or chose not to embrace some tecno-geegaw I find myself rewarded by a news story about the trauma those still entangled with them are experiencing because of faults or loss of service which I have thus avoided.

    An especially ironic example is my older truck-which I use very little anyway-that seems to be old enough not to be eaten by rats! Seriously! My neighbours with late model cars have experienced expensive damage to electrical systems because rats just love the soy based plastic used to insulate the wires.

  7. Denis Frith says:

    As usual, Tom Lewis provides a sound comment on one of the predicaments that society will have to cope with – when it wakes up. The declining availability of the liquid fuels for land, sea and air transport, the declining ability to feed and give potable water to many of the global population and the irrevocable aging of the infrastructure that provides the services society is so dependent on are some of the other predicaments than future generation will cop.