It is a truth that should now be universally acknowledged, that everywhere in the world our lives are driven by computers—or more specifically by the workings of information and communication technology (ICT) and, therefore, the Internet. Our dependence on them is not just temporary or partial; it is continuous and overwhelming. People who actively use computers—desktops, laptops, tablets or mobile telephones—are not the only ones whose lives are driven by them and by Internet access. Increasingly, certainly in urban areas, almost all forms of transport, most forms of financial transactions and many forms of quotidian work and interaction are reliant on the underlying operations of computer systems. As “the Internet of things” quietly becomes more and more significant, the very gadgets that people use on a regular basis function on the basis of information collected, computed and transmitted in ways that are typically not even known to or grasped by the user.
All this has created new forms of dependency and vulnerability, which we do not fully recognise. The usual concerns that many people have about this domination of “smart” machines all around us relate to privacy, monitoring and surveillance, and, of course, the ever-present possibility of cyber fraud. These are certainly valid concerns. But the implications of a simple failure of a computer system—and outage or downtime—are somehow seen as less dire, probably because most people believe that such temporary collapses can be speedily rectified and dealt with, and that most computer systems have enough backup to resolve the ensuing problems quickly and relatively smoothly, without major disruption.
However, now it seems that such a belief in the fundamental resilience (if such a word can be used) and reliability of systems based in cyberspace are not justified and could even be touchingly naive. The latest example of the fragility of these systems was the collapse of the computer system of British Airways on May 27, which led to a complete shutdown of flights for a full day followed by huge numbers of cancellations and delays and chaos and confusion for several days thereafter.