PayPal, United Airlines, and a host of other companies have fallen victim to computer and human-inflicted glitches. We take a close look at the moral complexities of gaming the system from a technological distance.
This week a technical hemorrhage temporarily removed the spending limit on EBT cards in Louisiana. Though the glitch lasted only a few hours, word spread quickly among cardholders, leading to a run on local Walmarts where shoppers bought hundreds of dollars of groceries and left store shelves barren. One woman was attempting to check out with more than $700 worth of groceries when the appropriate cash balances were restored and a cashier saw that she had only $.49 in her account, which prompted a store manager to phone the police.
Technological errors of this scope have become commonplace in the last decade, chaotic ruptures produced when systems driven by computerized efficiency are breached by systems of human desire. Earlier in the week a similar bug in United Airlines' website allowed customers to trick the company into thinking they had imaginary frequent flier miles, which could be used to book first-class tickets paying only nominal service fees. In September, a similar mishap occurred with United's booking system when an administrator entered a wrong value somewhere in its code, which resulted in users booking flights for as little as $5.
Reactions to these systemic lapses tend to emphasize the untrustworthy morality of the people taking advantage of them, entitled exploitation artists seizing on an unfair opening to better their own position at the expense of everyone else. "You tried to get something without paying for it...and you got caught," one commenter said. "Deal with it."
In computerized economies it's inevitable that money moves to the wrong places because the appearance of efficiency is a higher systemic value than the dollars in the system.
In this case, dealing with it would entail living without something that is abundantly available but withheld for theoretical reasons. The facts that there are 30 bags of Doritos on a Walmart shelf or 400-plus seats on the average Paris-bound 747 are not produced by moral virtue but systemic efficiency.
Money has always been a metaphor, but so long as it was a physical object there was a sense of concreteness and inevitability to its emphasis on trade instead of individual need. As money moves into computerized system, it becomes a metaphor of a metaphor, an artificial economic bottleneck from old times that is now merely a concept in computer code. Referring to the moral disposition of those who don't respect its theoretical role in balancing marketplaces pushes the absurdity of the original system to a breaking point, making Doritos and airplane seats matter for moral consternation—something a person does or doesn't deserve.
Holding this system in place depends on people taking money seriously, but computers have amplified its arbitrariness, less of a concrete object and the more a value on a computer screen. The video game designer Jonathan Blow described the strange feeling of discovering new money in his bank account when his game Braid was released to record sales on Xbox Live Arcade.
“One day I’m looking at my bank account and there’s not much money, and the next day there’s a large number in there and I’m rich,” he told The Atlantic. “In both cases, it’s a fictional number on the computer screen, and the only reason that I’m rich is because somebody typed a number into my bank account.”
This is a fairytale, but it doesn’t require the physical laws of the universe to be rewritten in order for it to happen, only a shift in luck. In July, PayPal inadvertently made a Pennsylvania man the richest person in the world when it transferred $92 quadrillion into his account. In 2010, a similar error saw a bank fill a woman’s checking account with $88 billion, then promptly freeze the account for several days.
These fantastic happenings are charged with amoral lustfulness, desirable because they relieve not just poverty but the philosophic structure that attaches moral interpretation to it. A money switch being turned on is magical not because it makes it possible to buy a helicopter and import some cheetahs for pets, but because it solves the riddle of having to prove you’re worth something when you have nothing. I am worth something now, and therefore I am good. If you think otherwise, tell it to my bank account.
Imagining money used this way is only tolerable as isolated anomaly or garage-entrepreneur-made-good stories. To make a system where money flowed haphazardly would destroy the moral basis of the entire economy, making it impossible to find moral virtue in a system of statistical artifice. Yet, in computerized economies it's inevitable that money moves to the wrong places because the appearance of efficiency is a higher systemic value than the dollars in the system. And in the same way that human relations are corruptible if it means accruing a comforting buffer of money or stuff, computerized systems will be susceptible to corruption in order to create the mirage of smooth functioning.
Since Internet-driven markets operate on a theoretical level several orders of magnitude apart from their end products, their conceptual value begins to seem more important than their actual functioning, and any behavior that reminds us of the falseness and fragility of the system is viewed as a sin deserving of punishment.
Michael Thomsen is Complex's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.