Complex Made Simple

When technology fails, who pays the price?

From power outages to cancelled flights, when technology fails, someone pays the price.

The most recent tech blunder involves the Iowa caucuses that took place this week A faulty voting app disrupted the entire democratic process and delayed results The Iowa mishap is just one of many technological blunders of recent times - in fact, it could be one of the cheapest

We as the human race have reached such a point where we are so reliant on technology, that our society would likely collapse after the smallest untangling of our digital infrastructure. We’ve seen it in films like Die Hard 4, The Matrix and this week, in real life, in Iowa, USA. 

While certainly not as grand as the repercussions of those witnessed in a film like the Matrix, Democratic party voters in Iowa got a taste for what it’s like when technology goes haywire. 

One of the world’s most technologically advanced countries faces an IT problem
On Monday the 3rd of February, voters from the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) had assembled for caucuses across the US state at its various precincts, looking to vote for candidates to represent them in the US presidential race. 

It was business as usual: people had gathered at various meeting points such as designated schools, public libraries, gyms, and more to physically represent their candidates and put in a vote for them, in a relatively old-fashioned show of democracy. Voters literally huddle in groups in seperate corners to show their support for a candidate.

“At most Democratic caucus locations, a candidate must get support from at least 15 percent of attendees to achieve viability. If that threshold isn’t met, a candidate’s supporters must realign to a different viable candidate or join with other nonviable groups to form a viable preference group,” NBC News explains.

After initial selections are made by the physical show of numbers, candidates are whittled down (usually to around 10), and final voting occurs for the state delegate equivalents (SDE) that represent them. 

“If you see that Joe Biden gets 35 percent on caucus night, that means he won 35 percent of these state delegate equivalents,” NBC explained. 

This is where things went wrong. 

In the process of reporting in each precinct’s final votes to the main Democratic body, the phone app that was commissioned for this purpose went haywire, delaying the final vote by hours. The app is called Shadow. 

Even when reverting to the traditional phone hotline, some precincts were delayed several hours more, due to long hold times. 

As a result, voting results at many of the precincts had to be filled in manually, disruptng the whole process and holding up the final results. 

Iowa’s caucuses are the Presidential Election’s first, and often a key starting point for the whole race with indication of how later voting will likely transpire and in who’s favor. This technical hiccup has shown us that even one of the world’s most advanced countries can fail technologically when it comes to electing the world’s most powerful politician – even in 2020. 

So, who’s fault was the whole thing? It’s not clear yet, with conflicting reports of short beta-testing cycles and other rumors. According to reporting by the New York Times, Shadow was paid $63.000 in two installments to build one of its “affordable and easy-to-use tools.” 

For now, it’s the Democratic party has paid the great price of this technical mishap. 

That time when Heathrow cancelled 500 flights
When Heathrow Airport opened its Terminal 5 to the public for the first time in 2008, after costing £4.3 billion ($5.6 billion today, $8.5 billion at the time) to complete, travelers to the Terminal were in for a terrible experience. It so happens the greatest technological blunders are those that involve tech and systems that make our life easier. 

So what went wrong at Heathrow? Well, plenty. 

“First, staff had problems with the car park, then a computer problem led to some departing flights having to leave with no luggage aboard,” the Independent reported at the time. 

The problems kept compounding, like a stone rolling down a snowy hill. Eventually, 500 flights were cancelled and 15,000 pieces of luggage had to be found and returned to their owners costing stakeholders millions of not billions of dollars. While travelers certainly suffered, it was Heathrow who paid the greatest price in terms of its PR image and its wallet. 

50 million people suddenly lost power in 2003 
In 2003, 21 power plants on the East Coast of the United States and parts of Canada shut down in just three minutes, effectively cutting off 50 million people from access to electricity. While many power companies were able to return power in 2 hours, it took others an entire day. 

During this time, “it took more than two hours for passengers to be evacuated from stalled subway trains,” History.com writes. “Small business owners were affected when they lost expensive refrigerated stock. The loss of use of electric water pumps interrupted water service in many areas. There were even some reports of people being stranded mid-ride on amusement park roller coasters.” 

According to CNN, “the blackout was made possible by a bug in General Electric’s Unix-based monitoring software that kept operators from learning of a local power outage.”

Who paid the price? Everyone from small to large corporations, power companies, government institutions, individuals – essentially everyone without a backup generator, like the New York Stock Exchange and bond market. 

The infamous Y2K bug that cost $200 billion
No technological mishap is as infamous as the Y2K scare. Y2K was a shorthand term for “the year 2000,” the year when everyone thought that computers would stop working and entire infrastructure systems of key institutions and units like power plants and banking systems would collapse.

Back in the 90s, “instead of allowing four digits for the year, many computer programs only allowed two digits (e.g., 99 instead of 1999),” Investopedia explains. “As a result, there was immense panic that computers would be unable to operate when the date descended from ’99’ to ’00’.”

According to CNN, “research firm IDC estimated that U.S. businesses, government agencies and individuals spent nearly $200 billion dealing with the problem.” Prior to the turn of the new millenium, research firm Gartner had estimated that the global costs to fix the bug were expected to be between $300 billion to $600 billion.

In the end, “while there was widespread outcry about the potential implications of this change, not much happened in actuality,” Investopedia said. 

While some minor issues arised following the jump to January 1, 2000, the impact was mostly subdued and quite minor. However, nothing from our short digital history comes close to the potential impact the Y2K bug could’ve caused, and the damage it would have done to world infrastructure and economies. It is safe to say we quite possibly dodged the apocalypse. The entire world would have paid the price.