Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Glitch in Time

At my job as a financial writer, our company decided to upgrade our email system, and they started a shit storm that saw some people, including high-ranking editors who supervise multiple publications, go days without any email access whatsoever.

Only a few days later, Knight Capital sunk themselves when a software malfunction caused them to buy shitloads of stocks they didn’t mean to. Their CEO asked the SEC for a “do-over” as if they were playing a game of tag. His request was promptly denied. They managed to survive only by agreeing to sell themselves only a few days later.

Knight Capital went hat in hand to beg for its life because of a software glitch. Although it is not as large as the major banks and lacks the same widespread name recognition, Knight was not some rinky-dink firm. It is a major trader and underwriter and if they can have a software glitch put them in jeopardy of losing their entire business, how much at risk are the rest of us? How quickly could we lose the money in our bank accounts as a result of such a glitch?

The Facebook IPO, the most highly anticipated IPO in years, fell victim to software glitches that will end up costing NASDAQ millions of dollars. This after repeated tests and run-throughs that were supposed to guarantee trading go smoothly.

In this advanced age of computers, the technology proficient sometimes can’t get any more specific than “glitch.” We are dependent on the world of Internet Technology to help us survive in the modern world. But in the IT field; even the experts don’t know what’s going on.

Also, cyber warfare is going to heat up soon. As exposed by the New York Times, the U.S., and Israel launched a cyber attack on Iranian computers using the Stuxnet virus. In a kick-ass, classy touch, the virus has apparently caused Iranian government computers to play the AC-DC song “Thunderstruck” (I would have gone for “Dirty Deeds Done Dirty Cheap,” but that’s a personal bias). The Chinese and the Russians have hacked away at many of our systems and every once in a while a virus comes through that knackers scores of computers.

As we become more enamored with technology and dependent on it for our daily lives, we become diminished in capacities we used to take for granted. I used to be able to remember a woman’s phone number quite easily and dial it with lightning speed from any phone. Now I’ve been in a relationship with a woman for two years and I can’t remember her phone number to save my life (she can’t remember mine either).

It’s almost enough to make you become a Luddite and start making plans to retreat into the woods and learn to live off the land like the people who built this country, the pioneers who had only their own scrappy wits to survive. Teddy Roosevelt never had to languish in phone queue hell only to be told by a disembodied voice from India that he had to delete his cookies. Doc Holiday never had to download an app to do his work, he just started blasting.

The pioneers who conquered the West had many things to fear, and there were many things they couldn’t control. They didn’t have any say over the weather or how hostile the Indian tribes would be. But those were more tangible things you could light a fire or take up a musket against. Many us today depend on technology and if things go wrong our salvation won’t be our own tools or the sweat of our own brow but the whims and competence of a technical support agent on the other side of the globe. Technology is a wonderful thing, but it has helped neuter us as a people.

Technology is one of several things turning us into mush, but we can’t retreat from it. That would be the cowards’ way out. Luddites who purposely refuse technology are not to be applauded; they are stubborn people who think they are too important to make themselves useful and expect the world to conform to their whims. That’s weak.

And technology makes many more adventures and conquests possible. At the same time the Knight debacle was unfolding, another space probe landed on Mars. The probe’s photos were not very exciting to look at and seemed to only confirm that indeed Mars is a desolate place that has deserts even more boring than ours on Earth. But, every mission to Mars is an achievement in exploration in itself and we can pat technology on the back for that.

We need to embrace technology, but as the Knight episode demonstrates, we're a long way from using it well. So let’s please get a handle on it before it manhandles us. 

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