The Day the Computers Betrayed Us

Major glitches caused delays and suspensions across the airline, financial, and media industries.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The computers betrayed us on a warm July morning.

Across the world, nearly 5,000 United flights were grounded and delayed for two hours because of an “automation problem.” Connections were missed and upheaval ensued; 500,000 travelers were affected. An inconvenienced former senator kvetched, but he was powerless like the others.

The culprit was later determined to be a router that “degraded network connectivity,” hardly a turn of phrase that would accompany “Rhapsody in Blue” or sound natural if uttered in Chuck Yeager’s "West Virginia poker-hollow drawl." Meanwhile, in Seattle, the city’s 911 system went briefly down, causing residents to reach a busy signal.

Later on Wednesday morning, another glitch caused trading in all securities to be suspended on the New York Stock Exchange. The mood was more of calm resignation. “It's under control. We're just waiting for word. There's no sign of panic at all,” one reticent trader told Reuters. Trading eventually resumed just in time for workers to miss their lunch.

The timing was fitting. Earlier this week, the New York and Chicago futures trading pits had fallen forever silent after 145 years and 167 years of respective noise. At one point, the Chicago floor hosted the dim rush of 10,000 hungry jostlers, but the chorus slowly diminished with the rise of computer trading. The often-mocked hand signals became signs of something else: obsolescence.

As the news outlets reported on NYSE suspension, just down the metaphorical street, The Wall Street Journal was left behind after an outage prevented its homepage from loading. The paper announced “technical difficulties” and subbed in a stripped down version of the homepage. By early afternoon, the site was back up, featuring stories about all the other glitches.

“What we can say is that when things work in new ways, they break in new ways,” Alexis Madrigal wrote in The Atlantic after a glitch waylaid the NASDAQ stock exchange for three hours in 2013, causing a panic.

On Wednesday, whatever panic there was seemed to center more on the cause. In an interview with CNN, a spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security said that there is "no sign of malicious activity" in either the United or NYSE troubles.