On July 8, 2015, on an otherwise ordinary day, all United Airlines flights in the US were grounded, the NYSE computers crashed, and WSJ.com was down.
The thing is — it was an ordinary day. Some computers crashed. Except they happen to be major computer systems, and it turns out they crash fairly often relative to their importance in our lives. One secret of the modern world is that technology lasts a lot longer than we give it credit for. Large chunks of the modern world still run using code that is older than Mark Zuckerberg.
Zeynep Tufekci wrote about July 8, 2015, and in a very eloquent way, having had hands-on experience working on these pieces of software that have been running for decades:
The big problem we face isn’t coordinated cyber-terrorism, it’s that software sucks. Software sucks for many reasons, all of which go deep, are entangled, and expensive to fix
It’s that simple — the modern world is tangled. Have you ever untangled a string of holiday lights? Imagine that, except there are about 100 strands all connected, tangled, and you have to untangle them without any lights going off.
This is why code stays online — a system gets written, reaches a reasonable level of stability, then gets layers build on top of it. Eventually, so many layers are running on top of it that no one is willing to touch the underlying system, because it could break everything that depends on it. After a long enough time, many of the original authors may actually have not just left the company, but actually passed away.
This is the complex modern world we live in. Don’t unplug those lights. Why the Great Glitch of July 8th Should Scare You by Zeynep Tufekci.