ALTOM: Obamacare not only spectacular tech failure of 2013

As custom dictates, the Christmas version of this column offers you yet again a very special gift, that of comforting comparison. I expect that no matter how bad your technological goof-ups and mistakes for the year might be, they’re small next to these.

We must start, of course, with the year’s best-known snafu, the Obamacare sign-up site. This site, launched Oct. 1, was supposed to open up the insurance market for good policies to millions who have been all but locked out of it until now.

The builders had to know there would be an on-rushing tsunami of log-ins from eager policy-seekers. But when only the first few thousand tried to register on the system, it broke down and went to whatever happy place servers go when misused. It might be years before we know the whole story of this debacle, but I can predict one thing: it won’t be due to technology. is said to have processed 306 items every second throughout Cyber Monday 2012. Google racks up more than 5 billion searches per day. Facebook is supposed to have more than 600 million visitors per day. The popular professional networking site LinkedIn can do more than 9 million. Dozens of sites chug merrily along at 1 million visitors or more per day. Why the Obamacare site was stymied by a few thousand is still a mystery, but I’d bet that it was human error, not the equipment.

Sadly, I have to acknowledge that a favorite Christmas subject, huge data loss, no longer carries the same astonishment. For instance, a recent massive loss of some 130 million records from Adobe Systems, a major maker of software, got little notice, even among techo-gensia. Although hacks are still worrying, the scale of loss isn’t breathtaking anymore.

Hackers, however, can be entertaining even when they’re not actively stealing data. The Associated Press was terribly embarrassed in April when a group of Syrian loyalists managed to get control of the company’s Twitter feed and promptly send out a shocking headline of “Breaking: Two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.” I suppose it’s possible to take this announcement metaphorically and find some truth to it, but its literal truth was quickly found to be wanting.

In another case earlier this year, a 12-year-old boy was discovered hacking into the websites of the Chilean government and the Montreal police, among other organizations. As hacks go, it wasn’t malicious or even damaging, but it was humiliating.

Computer systems aren’t the only technologies that can fail spectacularly. In May of this year, one of four spans of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington State collapsed as if it had been built of Legos, despite having been recently inspected and found safe. The bridge used an obsolete design called “through-truss” that was essentially a house of cards.

In this design, everything depends on everything else, and the failure of one small element can result in a cascading collapse of the whole thing. A semi-trailer that was about a foot too high hit the bridge, and caused one whole span to fall into the river. The resulting cutoff of commerce convinced Gov. Jay Inslee to declare an economic state of emergency.

Only one person died in the collapse, a state trooper who was hit by a truck. But it cost nearly $7 million to replace that one span. Replacing all four spans will, of course, cost much more. The economic effects of the bridge collapse might never be calculated, but must surely be in the tens of millions at least.

Large failures overseas don’t often get much press in the United States, even if they have many casualties. Last April, the Rana Plaza commercial building collapsed in Bangladesh’s Savar District. Authorities had copious warnings, as huge cracks had been noticed in the structure the previous day, but garment workers nonetheless were told to go in to work on the fatal date. Of those, around 2,500 were eventually dug out alive, but more than 1,000 died when the upper seven floors pancaked down onto the first floor.

We forget that our American lifestyle is connected to dangerous foreign conditions that use substandard and dangerous technologies. The garment workers were supplying companies like Walmart and Cato Fashions from a building whose upper four floors had been illegally added, and whose original design was for shops, not factories. The technologies employed in far-off, often poor countries touch us in ways we don’t know—and don’t appreciate when we do know.

That’s it for this year’s sampling of the techno-failures of our species, homo modernicus. Being the ambitious and error-prone tribe that we are, there will be more next year. Count on it. Happy holidays.•


Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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