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FAA Mess Gets the ‘Technical Glitch’ Treatment

Early Wednesday morning, a computer outage involving a Federal Aviation Administration system disrupted flights across the US. A corrupted computer file might be to blame for the failure, which the agency managed to fix through the oldest IT trick in the book: turning the system off and then on again. 

It’s the latest and biggest example of the outsize role technological glitches play in a world reliant on increasingly complex technological systems. 

Consider a few less-noticed examples from just this week:

• Seattle-based Amazon blamed a glitch for publicly “misrepresenting” how much advertisers had spent on holiday campaigns and how well those campaigns performed, reported Business Insider. As a result, some advertisers threw good money after bad, while others left opportunities on the table. Amazon is trying to make it up to them by issuing credits for more advertising; one hopes no glitches will mar those campaigns. 

• A judge in Michigan is set to rule on a class action lawsuit stemming from a problem in the state’s computer system that incorrectly flagged some benefits recipients as fraudsters. Michigan’s unemployment agency went after them, garnishing their wages and seizing their tax refunds. The attorney representing the victims is seeking damages to cover the suite of maladies that followed — everything from bankruptcy and eviction to job loss and divorce.

• And in Maryland, a college savings plan promised a months-long computer error had been fixed, only to hear from tuition-paying parents that they still couldn’t access the money in their accounts. The plan’s executive director insisted that “quality control measures were put in place” and that the issue had been corrected.

Futurist Amy Webb has tracked such glitches and years ago predicted that we would be seeing more of them. Glitches can be funny if they result in nonsensical Netflix movie descriptions, but not so much if they cause your Nest thermostat to turn off the heat.

Over the years, glitches have halted trading on stock exchanges from Toronto to Tokyo. In a 2015 essay for Harvard Business Review, Webb predicted an increase in glitches due to “so much new technology coming online so quickly — without the usual testing.” We don’t always know in advance how the new systems will interact, at scale, either with legacy systems or other new technology.

As domestic aviation was thrown into disarray Wednesday morning, news outlets and social media quickly began describing the outage as a glitch, the verbal equivalent of the shruggie emoticon. Flying is canceled and we don’t know why!  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

In theory, a glitch is something more spontaneous and less explicable than a regular old software bug. But in reality, glitch is a term that covers a number of technical sins — particularly those that have no clear cause. If we could explain it, in other words, it wouldn’t be a glitch. 

In some cases, what we call a “glitch” is found to be more like a loophole that additional safeguards could have uncovered. But using the term “glitch” sometimes is a subtle attempt to absolve an organization from responsibility, ascribing the fault to the black box of inscrutable computer systems. It’s the digital age’s equivalent of “mistakes were made.”

It’s also a word that tends to minimize the consequences; by definition, a glitch seems small or fleeting. Which creates quite a contrast when its impact is thousands of delayed and canceled flights. A mega-glitch seems like a contradiction in terms.

I’d venture to guess that most of us have gotten used to experiencing technical glitches on a regular, even daily basis. They might not bring the entire US air network to a standstill, but they are still exhausting reminders of how complicated the simplest things have become and how powerless the end user is to overcome them. They’re an invisible tax on modern existence. They are the microaggressions of digital life.

Earlier this week, I drove to the bank to deal with the discovery of fraudulent withdrawals from my checking account. After parking across from the local branch, I tried to pay for parking using an app the town adopted. But I didn’t have enough cellphone reception to use the app, because residents have vigorously opposed adding new cell towers in precisely the part of town that has paid parking. After searching for signal up and down the street, holding my phone out in front of me like a digital dowsing rod, I finally got enough signal … to watch the app crash. 

Should I be more upset with the mobile phone company, the app or the Nimby residents who blocked the cellphone tower? Glitchiness itself becomes the scapegoat, absolving any particular entity from blame or rage. And conditions in US airports on Wednesday reportedly were similar, with fatalism holding sway over fury.

And that’s understandable. Because the technologies that make headlines when they break down mostly function as planned — and our lives are generally made much easier and safer thanks to the complex software systems that organize aviation, optimize ad spending and beam credit card payments up into space and back down again. I might not enjoy googling “washing machine error code F21” but it’s definitely better than spending an entire day scrubbing my household’s laundry with cold water and lye. And before parking apps existed, you better believe I muttered under my breath about hidebound municipal governments and archaic metal payment tokens.

Whether you want to fly safely from Cleveland to Tampa or simply pay for parking, our technologically complex world relies on many things going right: A relies on B, and B relies on C. Yet building dependable systems is always expensive and often politically challenging. And so we beat on, boats against the current, rescheduling our flights, reversing the charges, resetting our passwords. Another day, another glitch. 

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Southwest’s Biggest Mistake Was Forgetting Its Own Culture: Beth Kowitt

• FedEx’s Problems Are About FedEx, Not the World: Thomas Black

• US Airline Passenger s Deserve a Bill of Rights: Brooke Sutherland

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”

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