Fragile Technology is a book about how
technology, and particularly computerised systems, is made fragile by humans.
It is not an academic dissertation, but takes a mostly light-hearted look at
the ways in ways in which technology pervades our lives, our dependency on
technology, and catalogues some of the consequent susceptibility of our world
to its failure.
Fragile Technology takes a somewhat
fatalistic approach, in part suggesting the pursuit of technological utopia is
pointless, because the technology was created by a 24 year old computer science
graduate who had a fight with his girlfriend on the weekend and is nursing a
hangover from the resulting consoling drinks with his mates.
Fragile Technology includes many examples
ranging from the sublime to the frightening. From prisoners in Florida jail
mistakenly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, to the quick thinking Russian
military officer who is credited with averting a nuclear war after identifying
an incoming American missile attack as being caused by a software glitch.
Fragile Technology does not set out to
provide a definitive solution to the woes of our technologically-enhanced
world. But it does highlight the areas of failure and most common causes.
Is it any wonder:
“A startling 52 per cent of us admit to
having committed a Digital Blunder in our lives, with email the most common
cause of tech-related embarrassment.”
Or in more formal terms:
“The systems humans create are like nature — they’re complex, unstable and
unpredictable. Add to that the fact that they’re susceptible to human error and
“The brittleness of increasingly complex, interconnected systems, leading
some to question their near-total dependence on them.”
Or in short:
“Any technology indistinguishable from
magic is insufficiently advanced”
Fragile Technology is about the inherent
weaknesses in today’s technology – and the technology of tomorrow. Our society,
and our world, rely on a complex environment of inter-connecting systems, the
chaos theory to the ultimate degree. A action in one country, leads to failure
in another otherwise unrelated location. One person’s screw-up can bring down a
company or a government. And presiding over the decisions which crucially
affect how technology works is inevitably someone who has absolutely no idea
how it works, or understanding of how their choices will impact the future.
Self-interest, ignorance, corruption and
incompetence dominate decisions; and systems fail and people die as a result. A
programmer takes a lunchbreak and half the
electricity. A computer glitch freezes trading on one of the busiest days for
the London Stock Exchange. A Philipino woman wins a million dollars on a television
game show because a technician plugs the wrong cable into the wrong computer
supply dip to a pharmacutical company’s datacentre results in 4,700 patients
being given either the wrong medicine or incorrect dosage instructions. A
ambulance dispatch management system which ‘appeared
to ignore the basic tenets for software’ fails for 36 hours and is blamed
for ten to twenty deaths.
From the sublime, to the ridiculous, to
the gut wrenchingly terrifying calamity of accidental nuclear annihilation, our
entire lives are controlled, managed, serviced and supplied by technology which
99.999% of the population has absolutely no understanding of. We blindly
subvert ourselves to electronic systems, which, literally in some cases, keep
us alive. Yet how many people know how to turn on call waiting? The old joke of
asking an eight year old to program the video recorder has worn thin – because
we were making it 30 years ago, and still are today.
Our collective community comprehension of
the technology which governs our lives has not advanced one iota. Yet the
technology has become more pervasive, more endemic – and more in control.