I was not personally impacted by the dreadful systems failure which hit British Airways and their customers a few days ago - my heartfelt sympathy is extended to anyone whose holiday was destroyed, or who suffered personal discomfort or inconvenience - all of that goes without saying. I am interested to see that there will be an independent enquiry into what went wrong - I fear that there might just be a whitewash job, or that some poor department head somewhere will be the subject of a token beheading, but in principle I look forward to seeing what they come up with. This is something of a hobbyhorse of mine. Certainly the current official explanation that it was all due to a power surge of some sort seems so laughable that it is equivalent to the old catch-all, "the dog ate my homework", though, naturally, it would be unwise to pre-judge. Already, there is sinister mention of software support having been outsourced to India - erm - right...
There was a professor from Glasgow University on BBC Radio 4 this morning, talking about the boring but rather essential matter of system resilience. He talked a lot of sense - there is not much sense around on the radio at the moment (don't get me started on the Election).
If you will forgive me, I'll plead for two quick timeouts at this point; the first is a link to a post I wrote here almost 5 years ago - The Banks and the Krell - about the increasing scope for catastrophic system failures in business, and the implications for society in general. If you care to check that out, it will save me saying a lot of the same things again. If you do not care to, that's fine too.
|The Krell's computer installation in The Forbidden Planet|
The second is a short story about a car I used to own. It was a 1995 Mercedes - only Mercedes I ever owned, and it was a great car - not very exciting, but dependable, and built to last. The date is significant, because it was a period when cars were starting to be equipped with automatic sensors and systems which were intended to make life simpler for the motorist, but also meant that the family car was becoming more and more of a mystery to both the owner and the supposed mechanics at his local dealership.
After a while, my Mercedes suddenly started suffering frequently from a flat battery - eventually it was every morning. The dealer replaced the battery (at Mercedes prices, of course), and checked the car over - no problems. Well - not so fast. The battery was flat again the following morning - that's the new battery with the clean new labels on it. The car went back to the dealer, who kept it for two days and returned it with a clean bill of health. Battery was flat again the next day. A terse phone call prompted the offer of another replacement battery under the terms of the warranty.
In desperation I took the car to a proper automotive electrical engineer somewhere near Prestonpans, and within an hour he had identified the problem. The car was fitted with a special sensor, the entire purpose of which was to detect if the electric windows had been left open when the vehicle was locked with the remote key. If it found that any one was open, it automatically switched in the motors which closed the windows. Great idea, eh? Unfortunately, the sensor had become faulty, so that when the car was locked the system incorrectly detected an open window, and attempted to shut it. Since the sensor was faulty, of course, the car was never satisfied that the windows were now closed, and it continued to try to close them continuously until next time it was unlocked. This doesn't mean that the motors were grinding away - the motor would not actually run if there was any resistance (another safety feature), but it would keep checking and trying - silently - and by the next morning this would have consumed enough power to flatten the battery.
The engineer rang the workshop at the Mercedes dealer and discussed the options with them; I could pay £370 + VAT for a replacement system - no other possibilities. In fact there was one other possibility, but I'll get to that.
I talked it through with the engineer. I was probably going to sell the car within a year anyway, and I had never left - nor was I likely to leave - the windows open when I locked the car. If I did, the worst result would be an open window - without the keys, the immobiliser system (Ha!) would prevent anyone pinching the vehicle.
Thus my £370 + VAT would provide a complete solution to a problem which I was unlikely to have. The alternative was simply to remove the fuse from the bit of the system wiring which supplied power to the Windows-Open-When-Locked sensor - the cost of this would be zero, of course, though I might be at risk, however unlikely, of leaving the windows open by mistake. No brainer - I went for the cheaper solution.
There are many lessons like this, but that one stuck in my mind - someone had provided a costly, over-the-top, luxurious solution to a problem which did not seem terribly serious, and - after it became defective - had thereby generated a much more significant operational problem in my use of the car. Something wrong there?
This whole industry expanded at a crazy rate - huge cleverness being applied to provide solutions to problems which might or might not exist, in the holy names of convenience and (the ultimate trump card) safety. My wife's current car knows when it's raining, knows when you need to change gear, knows when it needs to switch on the lights, knows the numbers in the phonebook on her mobile, will give you running statistics on things you never even thought of, has a built-in satellite navigation system, has an intelligent cruise control system which can be set to maintain a minimum distance to the car in front and - of course - can park itself without your assistance. It's wonderful that a piece of everyday technology can do all these things, and some of them are definitely useful, but what's going on here? If my wife's car suddenly stops running, or if the doors decide they are not going to let her get in, she is well and truly stuck. There is no question of opening the bonnet and spraying WD40 on the plug leads, or improvising a temporary fanbelt replacement. She is stuck. All she can do is phone up on her mobile, and get a mechanic with a laptop to come when he can, and diagnose what the problem is.
Righto - our cars are very unlikely to conk out, compared with cars we've had in the past - this is the power of technological progress - but if they do then the degree of well-and-truly-stuckness may be of a different order from what we have seen in the past. Not only has our vehicle let us down, an event which we will not have expected and for which we will not have a back-up plan, but our greatly diminished residual experience of coping with emergencies, of applying flexibility and adaptability, of having contingency margins built into our Plan for Today, the unfamiliarity of having to switch on our own lights and wipers, of getting to Lancaster without having a robot tell us what to do - none of these things is going to be a big help.
To sum up - the technology looks after us wonderfully well, but if anything fails we can be more desperately exposed than we used to be.
Consider the mobile phone networks. Presumably your local (or national) service could be impacted by a power surge (surely not?), or a malware attack - it is even possible for natural events like unaccustomed levels of sunspot activity to cause technology headaches. It could happen. If it does, how many kids will be out of touch - lost somewhere on the way home from school? - how many mothers are going to be running around screaming OMG? - how many calls will not be made to rescue sevices in response to genuine emergencies? - how many online banking transactions will fail because the text message to the mobile with the passcode will not work? - how clever is your Apple Pay app going to be in the supermarket? Does any of us have any idea what we could do, in the event of what might be a fairly routine and low-level failure?
Well - you might, quite possibly - but I know that I don't, and I've thought about it - I used to have to think about things like this in my old job. My 2012 post about the Krell was mostly about the fact that we take these advances for granted, and we very quickly forget what it is they are doing for us, and what it was that we used to do for ourselves before they arrived. We do not understand how the business which employs us works, because normally we do not need to; we do not know how to spell "laughs out loud" in full, nor how to read a map, because we no longer do things like that - there's no demand for that sort of knowledge.
If your airline of choice has a major systems collapse, and they do not seem even to know what it is, or what caused it, you may not find this reassuring. One day, aircraft may be so complex that only the onboard flight systems know how to fly them - with who knows what level of outside communication with global systems. In a world where, to save money, we are trying to achieve UK passenger trains manned by a single individual, how long will it be before the flight crew on a plane are just there to serve the coffee and make sure the computer is happy? At what stage will progress mean that they are no longer able to land the stupid thing without the technology?
Do you feel lucky, punk?
Do you feel lucky, punk?