I don’t know if a technical malfunction helped set off the historic 1,000-point nosedive that the Dow Jones Industrial Average took for 15 minutes on Thursday afternoon. The market rebounded to lose "only" 348 points by the closing bell.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating what caused so quick a crash and recovery. Traders have a phrase for transactions in which somebody, as reportedly may have happened this week, hits so many zeros by mistake that millions become billions: a "fat fingered" trade. Well, the B is just a couple of keys over from the M.
Before you say that people who earn so many zillions — ooh, sorry, wrong key, I meant millions — should keep their fingers svelte and on-target, ask yourself if you’ve recently sent an important or embarrassing e-mail to the wrong person.
Computer systems react more quickly than humans. Our brains are easily distracted; we have changing moods and fat fingers. Engineers consider systems that think and react more quickly than we do, and focus completely as progress, not a problem to be solved. It’s fair to point out that if the Dow had lost more than 10 percent of its value on Thursday, other systems designed to halt trading were programmed to snap into place.
A generation ago, there was a fear that a nuclear war could be set off by accident. Not just by some rogue general, as in "Dr. Strangelove," but by a technical malfunction occurring in clever and intricate machines. In "Fail-Safe," the best-selling novel of the 1960’s, a small puff of smoke sprouts and disappears in the back of a machine. A chain reaction of events is set off, and Moscow and New York City disappear in nuclear fireballs.
A computer magnate who built many of those systems tells a general, helplessly, "When you pile intricate systems on top of each other, something’s bound to break down. When they do, other machines react too quickly for us to catch them." The American president—played, of course, by Henry Fonda in the movie—tells the Soviet premier after he reaches a fateful decision, "We placed too much faith in our machines."
But people in software and computers like to remind us that behind every technical malfunction, there’s usually a human error: the fat finger that gets stuck on zero, or the space engineers who confused English and metric units, and crashed the 1999 Mars Polar Orbiter into the planet. Most of us have done something more modestly mindless in just the last week.
The momentary loss of so many billions of dollars—which are not just a bunch of zeroes, after all, but people’s life savings, college funds, and homes—might be a sobering reminder of how fragile and fleeting security can be. It can be wiped out not just by catastrophe, conflict, or upheaval, but a few fat fingers.