Saturday, March 24, 2018


We are used to things breaking. Cars, coffee makers, phones; the list goes on and on. Usually it's not something that causes a catastrophic situation. Sure, that can happen as well: witness the tragedy of the pedestrian bridge in Florida. But thankfully those kind of massive breakdowns are few and far between. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the failure is of the more pedestrian variety, and the results are hardly the end of the world. Sure, it might cause some inconvenience, a missed appointment or a ruined dinner, but the resulting hardship usually falls into the category of what Louis CK refers to as "white people problems."   

When that inevitable failure does occur, we generally follow a straightforward process. First we generally swear. Then no matter the complexity of the item we attempt repairs by the most basic method; we turn the power switch off and on, then depending on the size of the object, shake it or bang it. Surprisingly, that often does the trick and restores the thing to working condition. If it doesn't, we then proceed to get it fixed or repaired. Oh, and we swear again. Almost forgot that step.

But these days there are things that are so complex that when they break we revert to being cavemen. I don't mean that we bang on them with rocks, though if given the chance we might do that as well. Rather, I mean they fall into that category of technology that we are reduced to just staring at and wondering what to do. It's echoes that observation by Arthur C Clarke that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." 

That's how I felt when I recently picked up my little tablet. It's an Amazon Fire version, and I keep it in the family room to check my email and look up stupid things online that I just have to know at that moment (On the Eagles new concert tour, who is filling in for the deceased Glen Frey? Answer: his son Deacon.) By default it uses its own Silk browser, and by default, that browser uses Microsoft's Bing as it's search engine. In general, that's a geek detail too far. Except when it doesn't work. And not because my little $89 tablet is broken or slow or needs to have its on/off switch clicked. Broken as in Bing is broken. 

I typed my query into the box and watched the little whirling beachball whirl for a few seconds. But then rather than give me a list of best business backpacks or recipes for homemade granola bars or whatever I deemed vital to know at that moment, I got a picture of a cute but sad panda sitting down on the ground staring at a dropped ice cream cone that landed upside down. Under the panda was the legend, "It's not you, it's us. Bing isn't available right now, but everything should be back to normal very soon." 

Let's be clear what this was saying. My tablet, something I could fix, was fine. My connection to the internet, something I could fix, was fine. But the thing that was the equivalent of magic to me, the black box that sorted through the millions upon millions of possible answers to my query and returned the answer to my question had stopped working. Bing, owned by Microsoft, arguably one of the five or so most important companies in the information infrastructure, had one of its signature products stop working. Like the aforementioned caveman, I looked at the screen and just stared. After all, it's not often you see the world stop spinning. 

Sure, there are other browsers and way of looking up that info. And it's easy to say I'm making too much of simple technical glitch, one that admittedly was fixed in a few moments, when the screen suddenly twitched and my list of veggie burger recipes or whatever scrolled down the screen. But with all the talk of cybersecurity and hacking, think about what would happen if those bad actors got not to the various companies that use the net, but to the central nervous of the thing system itself. If googling something returned no answers. We might have to go back to books and maps and catalogs and libraries. And that goes way beyond just white people problems.


Marc Wollin of Bedford depends on technology more than he'd like to admit. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.