'We Are Still at the Mercy of the Clouds': Instagram Has No Filter for Nature's Fury

Last night, it was Cloud versus clouds -- and nature won.

[optional image description]
For an Instagram user, the saddest sight in the world (Instagram)

Last night, a thunderstorm tore across eight states on the East Coast, killing four people and leaving some 4 million without power. On the path of the super derecho was a server farm in Northern Virginia, which contain servers that contribute to Amazon's vaunted Elastic Compute Cloud service. The storm downed machines that hosted, among other properties, Netflix, Pinterest, and Instagram.

So while residents of those eight states woke up this morning to the physical aftermath of a raging storm, users around the country found themselves at the mercy of nature, as well -- indirectly, and yet intimately. Some of the key digital services they rely on -- for communication, for entertainment, for connection -- were simply not working. And there was nothing they could do to make them work again.

On the one hand, you know: big deal. The momentary inability to stream Toddlers and Tiaras -- or to share pictures of cupcakes -- or to share pictures of cupcakes washed with a pleasingly retro vibe -- pales in comparison, obviously, to the loss of lives. And even to the loss of power. As a result of the storm, millions of people are without electricity on a day of triple-digit heat; that is much more than a mere inconvenience.

What's noteworthy, though, is the ad hoc community that arose to mourn the temporary loss of those digital services -- ironized little memorials that emerged on Twitter to pay tribute to the assumption of connection ... and to the loss we feel when that connection is taken away. While Netflix and Pinterest came back fairly quickly after the storm, Instagram is still down. Which meant that fleeting, funny little obits have been popping up. This morning, Twitter hosted a flood of WHENCE INSTAGRAM tweets, ranging in tone from the fully ironic to the slightly more philosophical:

For the most part, this is all in good fun -- a lighthearted way to poke fun at a service when it goes, and lets us, down. And it's a way to poke fun, more than anything else, at our reliance on that service. We expect things -- even things we use for free -- to work; when they don't, we get frustrated. We get so frustrated that we need to share our frustration. And we want to commiserate with other people who are feeling the same thing, at the same moment. Hence, #instagram.

But there's also a sliver of real anxiety, I think, hiding behind all the tweets' ironic hyperbole. We are, truly, reliant on these digital services -- not just in an ironic way, but in a very, very real way. We depend on them to order our lives and make meaning within our lives and, overall, get around in the world. These services form, increasingly, our social infrastructures, our means of connection to other human beings. We need them.

Instagram is a minor example of that dependency -- as are, really, Netflix and Pinterest. Those services are, fundamentally if not fully, about entertainment. But what about Twitter? What about Gmail? What about Google itself? What happens when those fail us?

Outages like this morning's are a reminder of how fragile, still, our digital architectures actually are. As much as we try to bolster them against the elements, they are made of sand, not stone. Buildings can be brought down by storms; but so, today reminds us, can their digital counterparts. Even the structures that lack structures can be torn by nature's whims. That is, in its way, terrifying.

And yet -- here's the other sliver -- it is also, just a tiny bit, reassuring. No matter how advanced we get, today reminds us, nature will always be one step ahead. The elements will always be bigger than we are. And that is perhaps the deepest source of connection among us. In the jovial tone of the Instapocalypse! brand of tweet, it's possible to read just a hint of ... relief. Of awe, in the purest sense of the word. As one commentator put it, "No matter how powerful we become as a species with our technology, we are still at the mercy of the clouds. Pretty cool if you think about it."

And you know what? Yeah, it is.