Lockdown makes us even more vulnerable when the machine stops: Don Pittis

As Zoom shares fell following a widespread glitch in the video conferencing platform on Monday, businesses and schools that were locked into a single chat platform got a fresh lesson in adding Murphy’s Law to plans in the age of technology dependence.

Monday's temporary Zoom outage offered a fresh warning on technology dependence

Family members residing abroad watch a wedding ceremony in Amman, Jordan, amid strict social distancing rules to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on June 20, 2020. Shares in Zoom fell following a major glitch in the video conferencing software Monday. Businesses and schools locked into the platform got a fresh lesson in adding Murphy’s Law in the age of technology dependence. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

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.

Stock decline

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.

Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom Video Communications, is shown at the NASDAQ MarketSite in New York on April 18, 2019. The company's stock lost a small amount of its value following a significant glitch in the software on Monday. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

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.

Marketing advantage

So far, the Zoom name has been a marketing advantage during the pandemic. From about 10 million daily users before the coronavirus sent many working and playing from home, users of the service have zoomed up to about 300 million a day, according to the company's latest public tally in April. 

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.

WATCH | Zoom wedding brings together families from U.S. & Canada:

Zoom wedding brings together families from U.S. & Canada

2 years ago
Duration 2:47
Montreal-born Victoria Shore wed New Yorker Spencer Friedman in a small civil ceremony with friends and family watching on Zoom.

"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.

Zoomtingency plan

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.

The logo for the Zoom Video Communications Inc. application is displayed on an Apple Inc. laptop computer in an arranged photograph taken in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Friday, April 10, 2020. Zoom's shares have soared through much of 2020 as the popularity of its video conferencing service has grown during a time of widespread lockdowns aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)

"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.

Murphy's Law

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.

And according to The Economist magazine, one reason is simply that software has become almost too complicated for anyone to understand. From Boeing to Volkswagen to some of the world's biggest banks, "software is hard — and hard to keep up with," said the magazine

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


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.