Rhodri Marsden: In the internet age, most of us are helpless victims

While the internet as a whole is pretty resilient to attack, individual systems are less so

Share

In the 1999 BBC "mockumentary" series People Like Us, there's a moment where an estate agent turns to her computer to assist her with a property search. It beeps, and she looks at the camera, saying: "It just says 'ERROR'." The ensuing awkward pause perfectly encapsulates our helplessness in the face of computer malfunction – and this is something that customers and employees of NatWest are horribly familiar with after the problems of the past week; locked in a tense stand-off, both parties blameless, but rendered impotent by systems beyond their control.

This particular fault is so enigmatic and mysterious that it's been referred to by spokesmen only as a "technical glitch". The money seems to be on an inadequately tested software upgrade that's backfired horribly – but it's a glitch that's had profound consequences. Banking, more than many industries, has been transformed by computer networking; once a relatively lo-tech, personal industry, it now depends entirely on the free flowing of digital information. We take the movement of such data streams for granted, but rarely consider the consequences of their stopping. Yes, we may read articles where intrepid journalists try to "live without the internet" for a week, but that represents little more than a lifestyle change. If computers stop talking to each other altogether, society falters.

We're living amid an Internet of Things, where the number of devices hooked up to the internet is greater than the number of people using it – and it's growing exponentially. Within years there'll be trillions of sensors embedded within our environment, exchanging information and developing intelligence to help to manage all kinds of resources – animal, vegetable, mineral – better than humans ever could. But while the internet as a whole is pretty resilient to attack, individual systems are less so, and we're going to become increasingly at the mercy of lines of code that we don't understand.

As the fallout from the NatWest meltdown lumbers on and the failed systems return to something resembling normality, I think of the IT departments who put things right as the fifth emergency service, with fire hoses and defibrillators replaced by laptops and passwords. In the years to come, we'll frequently look to them to rush gallantly to our rescue, deploying their skills to save us all from disaster. And if that's not an image to change the minds of kids who think a career in IT is boring, I don't know what is.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
 

Costa Rica’s wildlife makes me mourn our paradise lost

Michael McCarthy
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence