Transient internet – a problem?

Transient internet – a problem?

The transient internet, is it a concern or just one of those things that mildly irritates?  What happens when the internet becomes transient, failing at critical moments in aspects of our lives?

In the modern world we are all encouraged to use the internet.  It is touted as the panacea for everything from home banking, scholarly research and entertainment via live media streams to controlling the equipment in your home with smart apps.

Transient internt - tablet screen Image: John New

Example tablet screen Image: John New

Banking and trading – two recent failures

The first failure (due to flooding of a City’s telephone exchange) has already been mentioned in an earlier Storify post.  The result was a return to cash-only trading, and because the cash for giving change ran out in some (most?) shops, they lost further revenue even where potential customers had notes with them.

The second failure is being blamed on a system error which led to customers of a major bank (HSBC) becoming unable to access their accounts where those are on-line and enabled for home banking.

When the transient internt fails we need cash not cards

Cash, bank card and Oyster travel card. Image: John New

Systems should be reliable but from time to time they fail; what is crucial is that there should be options available to work around these foreseeable issues. In the York scenario, where loss of the internet seriously reduced shops’ ability to trade, this is partly down to what the banking industry sees as progress, namely ending the paper cheque system. Many modern bank accounts do not offer a cheque book.  This seems foolhardy – discourage their use by all means, but ending the tried and tested back-up system for electronic trading does seem to be short-sighted in the light of these recent issues, all of which can be expected to recur.

Free travel in London as Oyster system fails

Underground train, Waterloo Station

Underground train, Waterloo Station. Image: John New

Another recent costly glitch in London may not have been directly due to problems with the internet but was similar in outcome.  It related to networked systems and because the modern expectation is that the majority of users will pay by card, a temporary cash only system was not practical.  The glitch on the morning of 2nd January 2016 is estimated to have cost £250K in lost fares.

Loss of web-sites and the historical archive.

The type of issue covered above arises from short-term problems, with expectations of  resolution in hours, or at the worst a few days.  The long-term transitory nature of the internet runs deeper, however, with pages and links disappearing on a permanent basis. There is an assumption that content referenced via hyperlinks will be there when next wanted, but this is an illusory hope. In preparing this blog, the first iteration of the site was accidentally deleted, the first posts (luckily mostly tests and drafts) were lost; it was the trigger for writing this post.

There are many examples of disappearing web-content and reasons for that.  As a Bournemouth University student, along with roughly 80 others on my course, we created a series of blog posts surrounding aspects of the Uk’s 2015 election.  Those blogs are not now  publicly accessible.  In attempting recently to re-access one of my own posts it appears either they were not up long enough to be fully archived by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, or their format was not fully compatible with that system.

As technology changes so do websites.  As can be seen from the Island-Publishing main site, I also maintain a website for the York Model Railway Show (Current link).  That outgrew the original website hosted on a free site with dial-up modem access back in 2009, and was relocated.  That old site was expected to disappear after 6-months of upload inactivity but is, surprisingly, still there gamely auto-forwarding any unlikely visitors to the new version. Many other sites disappear without trace.

The content from my own first website hosted on Demon was transferred to a totally different URL when I changed service provider but, as expected, the old version went dead immediately because the space was no longer being paid for.  The content all remains live but, if anyone had created a link to that Demon version anywhere out there, those links will now be long-dead.  The new site has a co.uk web-address, it is therefore future proofed for ISP portability provided fees are paid.  However many, many instances are found when searching and following old links brings up examples of links where the destination content appears to be lost forever.  The author Ben Aaronovitch, as an example, had a website (www.the-folly.com) which currently returns in search engines but is no longer live although his blog is live.

Screen grab re Ben Aaronovitch 8 Jan 2016

Screen grab of Google Search re Ben Aaronovitch 8 Jan 2016

Does this matter – should there be more to these stories?

What was noticeable with regard to the reporting of these issues was that reliance on the modern technology without provision of quick and easy alternatives was accepted in the reporting as a fait accompli.

Perhaps it does not matter, but personally I think it does.  As historians we need a preserved archive, print media appears to have a much higher percentage survival rate in comparison to modern technology and the transient internet.

Equally importantly, I am a retired Emergency Planning Officer, and one of the crucial lessons learnt, and repeated in public inquiry after  public inquiry following major incidents, is the value of communications.  The more our society abandons the back-up of low tech solutions like cash and cheques in favour of networked web-based activity the more vulnerable society becomes.  That reporting ignores this is a worry for the future.

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