Only a Technical Issue

In a rough day for technology, United Airlines, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and The Wall Street Journal all suffered technology problems that brought down service for hours Wednesday.

Government officials said the incidents were not related, nor were they the result of sabotage, but conspiracy theorists and social media mavens weren’t convinced.

First, a “router issue” at United Airlines suspended all of the company’s flights for nearly two hours, leading to 800 flight delays and 60 cancellations. Then, at 11:32 a.m., a “technical problem” at NYSE halted trading. In the midst of that, The Wall Street Journal’s website, WSJ.com, had “technical difficulties” that interrupted service. “The issue we are experiencing is an internal technical issue and is not the result of a cyber-breach,” the New York Stock Exchange (NSYE) announced less than an hour after trading was brought to a halt.

Homeland Security was also quick to announce that there was no sign of malicious activity in the NYSE shutdown or the earlier computer glitch that grounded United Airlines.

At this writing, the exchange has reopened, after nearly four hours of frenetic troubleshooting. And things seem to be as normal as they can be. …

Whether or not the shutdown was a cyber-attack, one thing is clear: we have become dangerously reliant on technology to control our daily lives.

Announcing the merger of the New York Stock Exchange with Archipelago Exchange in 2006, NYSE said, “The SEC’s approval … represents the final regulatory approval required for the merger, which will combine the world’s largest equities market and the first open, all-electronic stock market in the United States.”

Most computer power users will admit that their biggest catastrophes were self-inflicted. Whether through taking reckless risks or paranoid overprotection — or sometimes both — systems have come to a screeching crash.

The world of finance seems particularly vulnerable. Bloomberg Business News lists some famous catastrophes that occupied Wall Street, including:

“Nasdaq OMX Group had a three-hour stock freeze on Aug. 22, 2013. A confluence of computer mishaps, including a flood of inaccurate data, that culminated in the failure of the exchange’s backup systems was blamed for the market’s stall. …

“Goldman Sachs Group, on Aug. 20, 2013, sent thousands of mistaken orders that roiled the U.S. options market. The bank didn’t have adequate safeguards to prevent its computers from placing about 16,000 mispriced options orders that day, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission said in a statement last month. The bank recently agreed to pay a $7 million fine to settle the regulatory claims.”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Carr wrote, “A report from a Federal Aviation Administration task force on cockpit technology documented a growing link between crashes and an overreliance on automation. Pilots have become ‘accustomed to watching things happen, and reacting, instead of being proactive,’ the panel warned. The FAA is now urging airlines to get pilots to spend more time flying by hand.”

Carr warned, “As software improves, the people using it become less likely to sharpen their own know-how. Applications that offer lots of prompts and tips are often to blame; simpler, less solicitous programs push people harder to think, act and learn.”

Yes, we know. It’s too late to go back to the “good old days.” The genie is out of the bottle. But we had better be extremely cautious what we wish for.

Albert Einstein said about atomic energy, “Our world faces crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil.” The same might be said about computer technology.

It is a theme so popular as to be cliché: the science fiction plot whereby the invention destroys the inventor. But the idea of such rebellion goes back much, much earlier.

Harav Yonasan Eibschutz (5450-5524/1690-1764) wrote an astounding interpretation of the Tower of Bavel in Tiferes Yonasan. The builders of the Tower couldn’t have been such fools as to believe they could make a structure that would reach into the Heavens. That was merely a hyperbole. Their plan was to build a platform from which they could shoot a gunpowder-fueled ship through the atmosphere — where the rains and the flood came from. They wanted to settle on the moon, where they would be out of the reach of another flood.

Technology is a tool. And a tool is how you use it. When the telephone was invented, the Chofetz Chaim commented that now it will be easier for those of little faith to believe that what we say here can be heard far away.

But we must learn to control the tools and not let the tools control us.