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The Tech Disaster that Didn’t Happen

The Tech Disaster that Didn’t Happen

Sunday, 14 April, 2019 - 07:45

That’s funny. There were no computer-led disasters this past weekend. Shortly before midnight on Saturday, April 6, the clock that keeps official time for the Global Positioning System ran out of space to count the weeks, and rolled back to Week One. The hazards of this “rollover” were hyped in terms comparing the threat to the equally uneventful Y2K — “There’s a chance your GPS system could go haywire”! — and yet, when I climbed into my car on Sunday morning, the GPS worked just fine.

As Avi Natter of Bloomberg News noted, “The world as we know it didn’t end.” The non-event wouldn’t even be worth mentioning, except to note the one thing that did go haywire: the online rumor mill.

Starting on April 6, message boards were thick with rumors that some Boeing 777s had been grounded by the rollover. A similar claim about Boeing 787s was made in a tweet from China Aviation Review, which appears not to have a complementary website. A few bloggers then picked up on the tweet and treated it as true.

Yet there’s no other evidence that this happened. The interested reader had only to scroll down through the Twitter thread to find pushback from aviation fans who tracked the supposedly grounded planes in flight. And given Boeing’s parlous situation, the grounding of so many aircraft would surely have sparked splashy headlines around the world. It didn’t.

The most intriguing aspect of all this is why there’s such a readiness to believe the stories of looming technological disaster. Let there be so much as a whisper that Dr. Frankenstein is trying to perfect his monster, and people are ready to believe that it’s standing just outside the door, ready to hack alarm systems and shamble in to eat up computers.

The term “technophobia” does not quite capture what’s going on. When we think of the technophobe, the image that comes to mind is of someone like Alicia Corwin, the former White House official played so excellently by Elizabeth Marvel during the first season of the television drama “Person of Interest.” Corwin had become terrified of the surveillance state she herself had helped birth. Driven half mad by her fears, she had moved to Green Bank, West Virginia, a real-life town where no cell towers exist and wireless internet is strongly discouraged, in order to escape an artificial intelligence that she believed was watching her every move.

But it seems to me that Corwin is an exaggerated version of most of us. For even as we dive (sink?) ever deeper into a digitally connected world, we face a growing inability to control or even understand the technology that surrounds us.

For several years, I taught a popular course on the legal regulation of science. I would tell the students that during my own youth, technology was still seen as something that you could more or less get the hang of. People took pride in repairing their own cars or taking apart the television set to replace a burned-out vacuum tube. Home telephones, mostly owned by the Bell System, were embossed with stickers forbidding users to open them up, but nobody took the prohibition seriously. If calls were being interrupted by occasional bursts of static, we would pry off the bottoms to hunt for loose wires. Technology isn’t so scary when you can figure out how it works.

Today’s technologies are more useful than ever but they’re also a lot less accessible. We take it for granted that we aren’t permitted to perform a feat as simple as replacing the battery in a smart phone. When you take your car to the dealer because of a weird rumbling, the mechanic probably makes the repair by downloading a software patch. And even among those who consider themselves tech-savvy, few would attempt to fix the hardware inside their laptops.

That inability to get the hang of how things work very likely excites in us a feeling less of phobia than of inability. Call it techtimidation: the sense of being helpless should our technology break down.

And with techtimidation, I suspect, comes a secret resentment. We can’t repair the devices of which we make constant use, we don’t trust those who build them not to spy on us, and fewer and fewer of us really understand how the darn things work. No wonder we’re so attracted to popular culture in which advanced technology is either absent (think “The Walking Dead” or “Game of Thrones”) or actively evil (the “Star Wars” franchise or “The Hunger Games”).

And no wonder we’re ready to believe scare headlines about how hackers are planning to kill us by taking control of our smart cars and disabling the brakes, or to rob us by opening smart locks on our front doors. That these exploits have been demonstrated by experts doesn’t mean they’re looming over our collective heads, and, indeed, it’s hard to figure out why hackers would bother. But news stories scream away, and our techtimidation builds.

Wait, you’re saying. Smart devices around the home do get hijacked, at least if the passwords are not updated. True, and not good. When this happens, however, the usual reason is not to invade our households — where’s the profit in that? The usual reason is to enable mass botnet attacks on other sites. And that’s a risk we hardly think about. How many people even remember the hugely disruptive October 2016 botnet attack, helped along by the internet of things? Or, even today, how much do most people know about, say, Mirai? Not on our collective radar.

Or consider the small risk that hackers might be using our laptops, without our knowledge, to mine bitcoin. A danger, but hardly central to people’s technological fears. We worry a lot more about ransomware programs that lock us out of our computers unless we pay, well, a ransom — even though those attacks seem to be on the decline.

Our fears are what make the scare stories interesting. The GPS rollover “bug” never posed a serious threat to, well, pretty much anything. But news editors know that there are eyeballs to be caught and clicks to be had by pretending that it might.


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