LONDON — Is everything breaking down?
The question is prompted not just by the floodwaters that have been engulfing British cities in recent weeks, closing the railway system, jamming the roads and bringing the nation’s transport to a virtual standstill, but by something more fundamental than the passing excesses of the weather.
The deeper question is whether our societies, having built up an almost total dependence on electronic systems of communication and data processing, can actually handle the consequences when things go wrong, as they often do.
The electronic age has brought many great benefits to daily life. But can it adapt to the abnormal, the eccentric and the unprecedented? Can it cope with surprises and crises? Or is it only a fair-weather friend, ready to provide miracles of service and connectivity in normal times, but devoid of all initiative, even a liability, when the unforeseen strikes?
Some examples: During the recent bout of extreme weather in Britain it was not only the roads that jammed, and the metro and rail networks that closed down, but also the communications systems. Mobile telephones registered “network busy” as a million desperate travelers tried in vain to contact home. Electricity systems went down, leaving anxious telephone callers with a long instruction — “Press one, or two or three or four” — only to receive a recorded message that all inquiry lines were busy.
Rail-travel inquirers met the same fate. Since modern technology has made it impossible to ring up the local railway station — all inquiries are now centralized — the central inquiry bureau simply shut down under the overload, making all information on all trains everywhere unobtainable.
And it is not just in extreme weather conditions that things go wrong.
Recently the British Inland Revenue service had to admit that it had lost the details of over a million individual tax returns and had given up searching for them in its data systems.
The social-security benefits system is also in electronic turmoil. When someone reaches pensionable age, he or she is immediately bombarded with contradictory forms and demands. One agency knows the date of birth, but wants the address. From the other end of the country, another agency opens fire with demands for proof of age and birth certificate, together with the claimant’s last three addresses, last three employers and so on. Once the information is supplied, the computerized system immediately asks for it again, and possibly a third time.
Meanwhile, simple changes to a citizen’s driving license now take three weeks, far longer than in the manually operated past. Computerized systems for collecting parking fines refuse to admit mistakes. Recently, a London woman who paid her parking fine promptly and was able to provide full documentary evidence of the payment spent hundreds of pounds in legal fees and months of frustration proving to an unyielding computer that she had indeed paid up. Only after a year of misery did she get an apology — a manual one, of course.
Nor is it just the public-sector services that seem to be sinking into the electronic mire. Life-insurance companies lose track of their policy holders’ affairs. Banks put money in the wrong accounts. Instructions via Internet banking fail to register. Mail-order companies send two, three or half a dozen catalogs to the same address. Then they send the same merchandise twice over. Magazines to which an individual has long subscribed suddenly issue an invitation to become a subscriber. Invoices that have been paid go out automatically a second time, long after payment has been received.
And so it goes on. Of course there were plenty of mistakes in the good old days of typewritten bills and adding machines. But there were also people to put them right. In the age of information technology, human error — and human correction — have been bypassed. Huge centralization of information handling has decimated transaction costs and paved the way for instant personalized service — until, that is, the knock-on effects of some outside event, such as a natural disaster, confront the whole system with demands for which it was not designed and everything grinds to a halt.
What is the answer? There can be no going back. Our societies are now e-enabled from top to toe. Our lifestyles, culture and economies are built around information technology. Yet if the experts are to be believed — and they are often wrong — there are going to be more violent and unfamiliar weather patterns, everything from storms and floods to droughts and tidal waves, as global warming intensifies. Sea-bound nations and islands like Britain and Japan are going to be particularly exposed.
The immediate problem seems to be making control systems more flexible and less centralized, but also better able talk to, and cross-check with, each other. Too often, damage or disaster in one bit of the network seems to knock out the whole network. Too often, backup systems fail or prove to be be nonexistent. Even in normal times, one bit of the social-security administration fails to connect with another bit. Or in a private company, the marketing-department computer fails to cross-refer to the sales computer and both fail to connect the accounts and invoices computer, so the customer gets bombarded from three directions.
But perhaps there is a bigger problem still: the extreme vulnerability of a world where ultra-sophisticated computers control almost everything — energy supplies, water supplies, traffic flows, air flights, train movements, food chains, sewage systems, hospitals and medical services, school curricula, work, holidays, shopping, talking, entertaining, birth, life and death.
The more pervasive and miraculously efficient the systems controlling these things become in normal times, the more the ordinary citizen relies on them — and the more helpless we all become in emergencies.
The masters of electronic wizardry and the software geniuses who are designing our tomorrow need to remember that. Machines may be better than people most of the time. But human beings , in all their irrational, unpredictable, infinitely complex variety, still have a central role to play — especially when things go wrong.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.