Yesterday morning, just as business meetings were getting underway and many classes in the U.S. were starting, the videoconferencing service Zoom stopped working. For about five hours, anyone who was not logged in already wasn’t able to log in. By mid-morning, an independent monitor said they had registered 17,000 complaints.
Anyone whose business meeting was cancelled by the outage could have spent their time usefully by reading E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops.
Better known for literary morality tales such as A Room With a View and A Passage to India, Forster composed the science fiction short story in 1909 partly as an antidote to the celebration of technology by writers like H.G. Wells.
Most of us realize our daily lives depend on technology, from the electronic tallies of bits and bytes that pass for modern money, to the pocket computers that nearly each of us carry to provide a link to the world.
But Monday’s Zoom shutdown came as a rude reminder for those in meetings where no one else showed up — and for those trapped on the outside.
“We have resolved the issue causing some users to be unable to start and join Zoom Meetings and Webinars or manage aspects of their account on the Zoom website,” the company reported Monday after about five hours of frantic work to get the system back online.
The news was bad for the company, but good for its competitors. By mid-morning share prices were down more than $14, or about 5 per cent. Even after the fix was announced, the company’s stock was down by about 2.5 per cent.
But the decline comes after a meteoric rise. With tech stocks the flavour of the COVID-19 market recovery, it is unlikely Zoom will see a meteoric decline.
Since the lockdown began, Zoom has become so ubiquitous that in common parlance it has become a generic term like Kleenex. To Zoom is a verb that applies whether you are using Microsoft’s Teams, Google’s Meet, Cisco’s Webex or one of the growing number of competitors.
Each of those companies is pouring software development resources into improving their video-conferencing capabilities to catch up to or exceed the quality and reliability of Zoom. A major outage by one player makes alternatives look better.
Odds are those numbers have risen since then. The company has not revealed whether overloading is the reason for the Monday’s breakdown, which came shortly after scheduled maintenance.
The world Forster imagined has many differences from ours. But his portrayal of an entire planet where each person is shut up in their own quarters, visiting, chatting, lecturing, all by way of The Machine has a ring of familiarity. Especially at the moment when The Machine finally stops.
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“It may seem a ludicrous matter, but from it we may date the collapse of humanity,” wrote Forster. “The Committee responsible for the failure was assailed by complainants, whom it referred, as usual, to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, who in its turn assured them that their complaints would be forwarded to the Central Committee.”
One advantage we have, so far, is that rather than one big system run by something like a government agency, the loss of a single video-conferencing system does not spell the end of all economic communication.
On the other hand, the shutdown was a reminder for businesses and organizations that had not put major technical failure into their plans. As one professor at an Ontario university said, there is a backup system, but Zoom remains the default.
“It’s embedded right in our teaching software,” she told me.
Terri Griffith, a professor at Simon Fraser University and a long-time specialist in remote interaction for business and education, said the important thing is to have a backup plan. It already has a name: Zoomtingency.
“My personal approach was to dive into my calendar and email the members of my morning meeting both with our current Zoom link, and to then share a backup Google Meet link as well,” said Griffith who was caught by the blackout.
“All of us should understand that technologies have glitches — but the great news is that we also have options,” said Griffith via email. “While you may prefer one technology over another, always be ready with a backup.
“And if you’re on the attendee-side of the situation, be tolerant with your host,” she recommended.
When we depend on technology, accidents will happen, whether it’s a machine slicing ballots at the Conservative leadership vote-count, or the LCBO glitch that gave Mohammed Asaduallah a thousand dollars worth of free wine.
Unlike the software that contributed to the crash of two 737 aircraft there are so far no reports of the Zoom shutdown leading to personal injury or death.
But as we rush to jury-rig fixes for a world shaken by the coronavirus, the most important line at the top of any plan might be Murphy’s Law, a reminder that whatever can go wrong, will.
Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis