Storms Take Down Tech, The Physical World Remains Relevant

A severe patch of storms that rumbled across the Eastern U.S. [on Friday night] — leaving [thirteen] people dead and millions without power — also disrupted an Amazon Web Services data center, affecting service for social media sites like Pinterest, Instagram and Netflix, which host their services at Amazon’s data centers.

Netflix and Pinterest had recovered most of their service by [Saturday] morning. The worst affected appeared to be Instagram — the Facebook-owned social photo-sharing service remained offline for many users as of this morning, and as of 11 am PT, it hadn’t updated users on its status since its initial service failure. Some users reported on Twitter that service had been restored for them, while others said it remained offline.

via Storm Knocks Out Amazon’s Power, Takes Down Instagram, Netflix.

There are lots of funny quotes floating around from people who found themselves unable to overcome the crushing boredom of down web services. For tech junkies, Barb Darrow had an interesting analysis of the outage for cloud subscribers over at GigaOm (including a link to her story about AWS outage two weeks ago). Four our part, we were awakened by the edges of these storms here in Philly on Friday night. Scary stuff here, so I can’t imagine the scene down there. And I wasn’t online, so didn’t notice any interruptions myself.

Reading the stories on Saturday morning, I have to admit that my first response was surprise at how ridiculous it was that people were upset by the loss of service of what are, for all intents and purposes, entertainment companies. Much as I enjoy them, Netflix, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. are simply not necessary for human life. Of course, that’s probably a bit too harsh, I know. When our daily lives are disrupted in any way, it can be surprising. I get bent out of shape when the Brita water pitcher is empty, so I get that.

Beyond the surprise, though, I was struck by how deeply dependent upon, and limited by, the physical world we still are. We spend much of our time hunched over devices, whether it is entering data on computers at work, gripping a steering wheel in a car, or posting a photo online. We often like to think of ourselves as living dual lives–one offline and one online. So much of the history of technology has led us to this point. We use our brains to extend what nature has given us, or—even better—to overcome it when it suits our purposes. It feels like some sort of transition sometimes.

Yet, we are not two selves. We are embodied beings, tightly grounded in the physical even when our activity is mediated technologically. We are in the midst of record heat across much of the United States, heat that will certainly take its toll on people who have little access to air conditioning. Our data systems are liable to interruption by mother nature, as are our lives. On the smaller scale, no matter how much allergy medication I take, my head seems to end up full of goo. When it comes down to it, we are still physical beings deeply embedded in physical contexts. We are still so fragile.

Some respond to this reality with renewed energy for further technological solutions. I am sympathetic to this view. We need to put our minds and bodies to the task of alleviating suffering however we can, and scientific and technological developments are a important part of this task. How many of us would not even be here were it not for medical technology? I venture to say I would not.

At the same time, I don’t think tech will ever be enough. Perhaps it will be someday, but not for a long, long, time. For the time being, we are stuck with incremental improvements on our physical limitations. That’s great, but still leaves us with two realities.

First, tech solutions to suffering are not universally available. While tech is becoming more widely available, access to tech—be it in the info and com, medical, civil engineering, transportation, agriculture, etc. arenas—still favors the wealthy and those with high levels of social capital (be it in individuals or nations). The dream that technologies will be so cheap as to essentially be free has yet to be achieved. And given that our economic systems are based on charging more for a product than it costs to make, it is unlikely that that will ever really happen. And so while we are saddened by not having Netflix access, people around the world are dying of malaria.

Second, no matter how much tech we have, we still fall prey to the same limit situations that we always have. We can become isolated and depressed (even in a crowd). Friends move away. Parents die. We fail to achieve our dreams. Spiritual grounding and psychological resilience can be a part of the technology mediated life, but are not created by technology. I’m not going to go so far as to say tech makes balance harder (many others have said that), but I think that without paying attention to the balance and working hard to maintain it, it won’t happen. Tech can help us do things, but it won’t make us into fulfilled human beings. We have to attend to that one ourselves.

Maybe it would be a good idea to have periodic power outages so that we remember to be honest about the limitations of technology, and our own limitations. It wouldn’t be fun, but it certainly wouldn’t be boring.

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