Technical Difficulties

Morgan O'Rourke


August 3, 2015

technical difficulties

Like any good husband, I do plenty of things that make my wife question my sanity. The most recent is my tendency to do things in the dark. I’ve become a big fan of going down into the pitch-black basement or into a darkened room to do some chore without turning on a single light. Whenever my wife asks why I don’t just turn on the lights to avoid thrashing around blindly and eventually breaking, say, a household appliance or my neck, I tell her I’m simply practicing for the zombie apocalypse, where lights won’t be an option. She usually walks away rolling her eyes hard enough to make them pop out of her head. I’m so misunderstood.

Obviously, my “dark side” has nothing to do with zombies. But what she doesn’t consider is that perhaps it is really part of a two-fold personal risk management strategy to 1) save the planet by conserving electricity, and 2) protect my family by training for blackouts. Maybe it’s all about planning ahead and being super altruistic. Or maybe I’m just too lazy and/or forgetful to bother turning on the lights sometimes. Either way.

As admittedly ridiculous as my behavior seems, our high-tech world may actually be making me look more prescient than I have any right to be. Consider July 8, 2015, otherwise known as the Day of the Glitch. First, “automation issues” grounded 5,000 United Airlines flights, ruining plans for some 500,000 travelers. Soon thereafter, the New York Stock Exchange was forced to suspend trading for more than three hours when a computer malfunction knocked one of its networks offline. Then, the Wall Street Journal’s website went down after experiencing its own technical problems. Many suspected a cyberattack, but the events turned out to be unrelated and, ultimately, order was restored within hours.

Of course, the internet had a field day with the glitches, as bad jokes and assorted conspiracy theories flew fast and furious across the Twittersphere. As amusing as these would-be comedians and pundits were, however, the truth is that an alarming amount of our infrastructure is vulnerable to technical difficulties.

In fact, according to a recent report from Lloyd’s of London and the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Risk Studies, a cyberattack on the U.S. power grid, for example, could have an economic impact of more than $1 trillion. The report predicts a plausible scenario in which hackers shut down the power grid in 15 states, leaving 93 million people without electricity and resulting in “a rise in mortality rates as health and safety systems fail; a decline in trade as ports shut down; disruption to water supplies as electric pumps fail and chaos to transport networks as infrastructure collapses.” Basically, a complete nightmare.

Doomsday scenarios aside, even on a personal level, we are increasingly reliant-to-a-fault on digital technology to perform what used to be simple tasks. I don’t remember the last time I saw a paper map, let alone drove somewhere new without my cellphone to guide me. And if I ever got stranded with a dead cellphone on the road, there’s no way I could use someone else’s phone to call for help because I have no idea what anyone’s phone number is anymore. I would just have to start a new life wherever I ended up since I would likely be stuck there forever.

So, while a series of computer problems in the span of a single summer day might be good for a few tongue-in-cheek headlines about an impending Armageddon, it can also serve as a reminder of just how precarious our relationship to technology really is. One glitch and we could practically be back in the Stone Age. Looks like I’ll be stepping up my blacked-out basement training runs after all. Let the eye-rolling commence.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)