On Thursday last week, Facebook, which has boasted that it would never crash, went down for users around the world, causing widespread anguish.
People who tried to open Facebook received a message reading: “Sorry, something went wrong. We’re working on getting this fixed as soon as we can.”
People wondered whether this unexpected glitch was a mere accident, or the latest in a wave of digital attacks.
By coincidence, the Web site of Taiwan’s Chinese-language Apple Daily newspaper had crashed the previous day, in what the paper said was a hacker attack, preventing it from providing a normal service for half a day.
In an age where information technology has become as essential as air, sunlight and water, it may be difficult for many to appreciate just how weak some links in the technology chain are. What people can do when technological violence strikes, other than sitting on their hands and waiting for it to go away, is something to consider.
Technology arises from human nature, and human nature encompasses both good and evil, so the premise that peace can reign in the digital world is questionable.
Wednesday morning last week was the final class on my introduction to computers course. I asked my students to predict in what way would information technology influence society the most in the next 30 years.
The question elicited various answers, such as: Remote healthcare and green industries will make huge advances thanks to information technology; communications will no longer be video messaging, but 3D projections; everyone will be Ironman; the streets, or sky, will be full of driverless vehicles; robots will be sent off to explore outer space; everyone will stay at home and form indoor communities; anarchic community groups will sprout up everywhere; there will be all-purpose robots that can think for themselves and self-assemble; there will be intelligent equipment that can be controlled by mind waves; babies will have chips implanted at birth, so that computers can search human brains, and so on.
What is certain is that society will become ever more closely entwined with technology. It will no longer be necessary to handle everything oneself. Digital agents will allow people to do just about anything they want, and even things they have not yet got around to wanting.
Although information technology has a great deal of potential to do good, many people are starting to worry about the downside.
Some people say: “Beware of Pandora’s box,” while others warn that hackers are running rampant and alarm bells are ringing for information security, or that the state is using information technology to monitor and control the public.
Still others say that people will have to create counter-technology to avoid being controlled by technology, or that all things taken to an extreme turn into their opposites, or that we are reverting to the Dark Ages.
In an age in which information is seemingly always within reach, I can feel my students’ anxiety, but they say the only way to be competitive these days is to “dance with the wolves.”
The sense of unease that comes with using information technology can turn into paranoia.
Last year, one student who was something of a hacker panicked because he could not access Google for half an hour.
Thinking that his computer had been infected with a virus, he reinstalled the operating system.