Richter Scale

Human Back-Up Systems

Is the Western world too reliant on the ease and simplicity of e-commerce?

Credit: Handmade Pictures/


  • Imagine al Qaeda or black hat hackers undertaking a full-scale attack on the backbone of the Internet, disabling the most pivotal form of human commerce and exchange.
  • In the race to hyperefficiency, few humans are available to back up those all those computer systems at the moment of technical failure, never mind a massive one.

The extreme fragility of our ever more electronic, at-the-fingertip civilization was brought home to me the other day when I was trying to make arrangements for some upcoming international travel.

Things just weren’t working as smoothly as they usually do. I had navigated the flight websites alright, and found the best connections and prices. However, when I tried to make the actual booking, there were unexpected stumbles. One site kept telling me that I needed to enter a cell phone number, which I had.

But the site simply wouldn’t accept the numbers I entered. In fact, no matter what (real) numbers I entered, the site kept telling me that it couldn’t proceed with the transaction since, you guessed it, my cell phone information supposedly still needed to be entered.

I got no better results after starting the whole transaction over from scratch and reentering all the required information. Since there were only very few tickets left for this flight, I had visions of not being able to secure a ticket for the trip. I tried a competing site, and quickly found the same flight.

But here I encountered another problem: When I clicked the confirmation button to complete the transaction, the site stalled. The hour glass turned over and over and over. A no-go here as well.

I tried a third site. The results here were even worse. I kept getting the message that the connection had failed because the server could not be reached.

Next, with an increasing sense of futility, I called up the call center of one of the sites. Lo and behold, it wasn’t what you’d expect. I was not forced through a long series of press one for this option, press two for that before being able to reach a real person. Nor was I put on hold for an unendurable amount of time. Quite the opposite happened: a real human came on the line after just a few moments.

I explained the situation. The call center agent acknowledged that their computers were down, but that he would take down all my information and call me back once they were back up. It would take, he guessed, another 15 minutes or so.

We proceeded with the transaction. There was a seemingly endless sequence of questions regarding my name, destination, flight numbers, etc. All of this was accompanied by military-alphabet confirmations of every letter of my first name, last name and so on, to avoid any errors.

The agent’s efficiency and accuracy notwithstanding, I was felling somewhat tortured by all the back-and-forth. There is no denying, the smartphone and one-click ordering world has made us more impatient than ever before. You can order a book from Amazon — from search to order confirmation — in less than a minute. Who wants to wait anymore?

The agent called back, as promised, about 15 minutes later. There were still a few hang-ups, which required a bit more patience, but eventually the deal was done. I had my ticket (or at least the electronic equivalent of a ticket) and was generally a satisfied customer.

But the entire experience left me puzzled, if not shaken. On the one hand, the diligence the agent had displayed was impressive. He performed what we don’t often expect anymore — flawless, conscientious, person-to-person service (albeit over a phone line).

And while I thanked him for it, darker thoughts crept into my mind. Not just about our increasing level of impatience and being hooked on speed and convenience of online transactions. I was wondering about how the world had ever functioned without all this online efficiency — and what if a true calamity arose to take it all away.

Imagine al Qaeda, Iranian foreign agents or black hat hackers undertaking a full-scale attack on the backbone of the Internet, suddenly disabling what by now represents the most pivotal form of human commerce and exchange — the online world.

Imagine all of that going into deep freeze. Myriads of “connection failed” messages. Hourglasses circling endlessly. The entire West would seize up. Most commercial activity would come to a crashing halt.

With all logistics down, even the simple things of life, such as food delivery, become near-impossible. In the race to hyperefficiency, few humans are available to back up those all those computer systems at the moment of technical failure, never mind a massive one.

It’s a real nightmare scenario — a mega event that could collapse what we now think of as Western civilization.

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

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