Tangled webs of “legacy” computer software underpin banks, airlines, welfare systems and more – and the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how vulnerable that makes us
4 November 2020
AS THE coronavirus pandemic swept across the US, it brought with it an unprecedented economic crisis. As firms shut down and people stayed home, the country’s unemployment rate shot up from 4.4 per cent in March to 14.7 per cent in April, adding fuel to a political fire already raging in a tumultuous election year.
That much is well known. But the stories of many of those who lost their livelihoods and sought help exposed a slower-burn technological crisis. Outdated computer systems simply fell over as they attempted to deal with the flood of people applying for welfare benefits – and hardly anyone around knew how to fix things.
It is far from an isolated problem. Tangled webs of computer code built up over decades, often written in programming languages now rarely taught or understood, underpin IT systems across the world, in government departments, banks, airlines, hospitals and more. Coronavirus taught us a lot about how the systems we had assumed would assist and protect us can fail in a crisis. As the fallout continues, it is becoming ever clearer that we need to revisit the computer code that underpins many aspects of our societies before disaster strikes.
Thousands of different programming languages exist, performing the same basic job: translating real-world commands such as “import this data” or “run this calculation” into the strings of binary 1s and 0s that encode information in computer processors and memory chips. Certain ones dominate (see “Top five languages”), but new languages pop up as requirements change. Google developed the Go language, for example, to streamline the development of massive applications running …