Imagine being at the supermarket checkout, having scanned all your goods and packed them into bags, only to discover, to your shock and embarrassment, that none of your plastic cards are working. The people in the line behind you start to grumble and cast critical glances in your direction as you sweat and fumble with your wallet searching desperately for another way to pay.
The affected POS systems, which had been developed by an American company, had been introduced around 10 years ago, and have generally been considered very reliable, gaining a market share of around 40% of all POS systems.
Eliminating the problem, a process which is underway, will require not only updating the software but manual intervention to the hardware too. It is likely to take weeks.
The same week that POS systems were causing retailers headaches in Germany, malfunctioning computer systems were creating chaos at UK airports as an airline abruptly cancelled around 200 flights. Over 30,000 passengers around the UK were suddenly told they would not be flying. It’s not exactly clear what caused the situation, but an "IT glitch" was named as the cause.
While it may be easy to blame the supermarkets and airlines for these messy situations, it is more useful to look more deeply at the structural causes.
The downside of netted technologies
When an embedded network repeatedly proves itself to be both quick and correct, human confidence in it becomes unshakeable.
However, the more a sophisticated technology has scaled up, the more it is equally capable of magnifying small and large faults and damages.
The probability of failures in professionally maintained systems should decrease with mass use. With repeated and widespread use, errors can be systematically located and eliminated. Yet, when faults do occur it can be difficult to predict the extent of the damage they can cause.
So while the probability of a total failure may be low, the potential scope of any damage makes the risk significant.
Where do the risks come from?
In the two above cases from week 21, the risk is to be assigned to the internal sphere of the respective institutions that operate with the system. Although these companies obtain the most important components of their technology from external developers and producers, they themselves are responsible for the process of selection, combination and calibration.
When programming software, the goal is always error-free code. Before it is used, each code is subjected to rigorous testing to be sure that every function works perfectly. If malfunctions occur in use, the developer takes feedback from customers as an opportunity to further perfect the code. The probability of errors thus goes steeply downwards.
In later phases, the effort to improve continues via software updates, which may be many years after the initial launch. These are also subjected to rigorous testing before deployment. If there are failures after these stages, as in the examples above, this is probably due to a software update or a lack of compatibility with hardware components.
Such failures are in contrast with external causes. These can be both with and without intention. Those without intention stem from unexpected expects such as natural disasters. One example is the very strong volcanic eruption, followed by a tsunami, of 15 January 2022, which, among other things, severed the only undersea cable connected to Tonga. This led to the country being cut off from communication with the rest of the world.
A more frequent disturbance is intentional, triggered by greed or hostility. Hackers may steal confidential information or freeze vital systems until a ransom is paid. With military means, it is possible to destroy communication routes.
"Inside jobs" cannot be ruled out either. This is the case when programmers, for whatever reason, build difficult-to-detect malfunctions into software in order to commit sabotage.
Users who suffer the consequences of systemic failure may be indifferent to the causes, as they are inconvenienced either way.
In ancient times, when attacking armies had more powerful siege engines at their disposal, the castle lords would subsequently built more powerful ramparts and sometimes hidden escape tunnels. When we look at the remains of such structures today, it becomes clear that ultimately almost all fortresses were vulnerable at some crucial point to either force or cunning. They were not useless, though, because they provided effective protection over long periods, and possibly allowed people to flee in time through tunnels, thus saving human lives.
The situation is comparable today, as companies can be vigilant for potential threats and proactively keep upgrading their precautions to protect systems and their users. The law of supply and demand mitigates the problem but does not eliminate it. If users of a system realise that it is inadequately protected, the system's market share will decline, but unpleasant surprises cannot be ruled out even with the strictest quality requirements for a system. Inadequately protected systems are the first ones to fall to their knees, but not the only ones.
How to respond
There are good reasons to be enthusiastic about powerful new infinitely scalable technologies. But there are no reasons for naïveté with regard to the damage that will almost inevitably happen to all systems given enough time. A system does not care about the magnitude of a negative external effect, and this is where systems diverge from human ways of thinking.
If a software system error has caused massive damage, this does not mean we must do without it or its replacement. The advantages of software for increasing prosperity and security are obvious. We also know that calls for more perfection cannot exclude risk, e.g. in public transport, logistics, electricity and water supply.
When a system no longer works, people fall back on previous solutions. They fetch their bicycle from the cellar or go on foot when the train doesn't run. They use cash when the plastic card no longer allows a purchase, and they light candles when the electricity grid fails. Citizens can protect themselves more easily by keeping a larger amount of cash on hand or by saving important documents in paper form. On the other hand, it is gratifying that in times of systemic collapse, experience shows that there is an increasing willingness for mutual aid and helping those who are particularly exposed because of their age or infirmity.
While calls, especially from young people, to abolish physical systems (cash, metal keys) altogether are nonsense, we may still need the old-fashioned techniques in case of emergencies, even if they are slower. Some people also like them better, and that should be respected.
Functional fallback positions and strategies to diversify risks are necessary. And we should only give in to the enthusiasm for electronic solutions for simple tasks such as opening a locked door if we additionally install a mechanical solution for the case of a system failure.
Companies that are responsible for the infrastructure and operation of data systems are aware and monitor for systemic failure risks. They work with elaborate backup systems and use geographically separate locations for their server farms, for example. But even these will stumble if, as in the unfortunate example of Tonga, a data connection fails for a long time.
Enjoy the benefits of technologies that make life easier, but always be prepared for sudden outages. Laxness can mean pain. When systems fail, we need to be prepared to smoothly shift back to older solutions, even if it’s just for a short while.
The issue of immigration is stirring up emotions all over Europe, but in order to consider the appropriate rational response, we need to first distinguish between the different forms of migrations. In fact, only one of the four categories of immigration distinguished below is to be classified as a challenge:
Migration of High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWI)
Let's start with the probably smallest group of migrants, which is also the least debated: very wealthy people who are able to move from one country to another with ease. Members of this group seldom encounter rejection and in some cases are actively sought after by countries.
HNWI can weigh up their motives and choose their targets according to their criteria. These include, for example,
security for personal life and wealth
quality of life
quality of the healthcare system
landscape or climatic preferences
quality of schools and universities.
Protection of wealth is frequently a major motivation for migration among the super wealthy and countries with low or no income tax are popular in this regard. On the other hand, while certain countries encourage HNWI to migrate to them, the benefits are not always as great as they might expect, especially when the migrant’s assets do not always accompany them to the country they are settling in. Furthermore, with laws that say an individual faces taxation if they spend more than 182 days in a country, those wishing to avoid this, simply rotate through different countries each year thus avoiding paying any income tax at all.
The number of migrants from this group is increasing, and the countries concerned are well known.
This group of migrants does not pose major challenges to European states.
2. Migration within the European Union: everyone with an EU passport
Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union guarantee the freedom of every EU citizen to take up a job in any other state of the Union and to settle there with their family. This freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the European Union. It has led to significant migratory movements, which, due to the enlargement of the Union into Central Europe, have been accelerating gradually since the 1990s. In most cases, families put down roots in their new place of residence and do not move back to their countries of origin, although they maintain ties there.
The disadvantage of this migration is that citizens whose education took place at the expense of their home states now move to member states with higher wage levels and better career prospects, in effect creating what is known as an internal ‘brain drain’ scenario, where talented workers move out of the country of origin, depleting the national workforce. The receiving states thus strengthen their national economies at almost zero cost to them and at the expense of domestic countries responsible for their education and socialization.
These implications were clear from the outset, but the net benefits from a large economic area with free movement of people, capital and goods outweigh the drawbacks. Free movement has had a predominantly positive impact on the prosperity of citizens. Changing this structure and enacting new restrictions on internal migration would have a negative impact on the powerful new industrial structures that have emerged over the years.
Traditionalists should be very careful when they argue against free migration within the Union as there is a long-standing practice of it within the continent. The last two centuries have seen massive migrations within the area that now makes up the European Union: the countries of origin were mainly Italy, Poland and Greece. These movements are themselves a valuable component of European identity and increased wealth.
3. Migration from outside the European Union: skilled labour
While the world population is still increasing, a simultaneous decline in birth rates has been evident worldwide for many years. The trend is more pronounced in Europe, where population numbers are increasingly moving towards shrinkage.
Clearly it is not possible to fill the gaps in the labour market out of the continent's existing population. This would not change even if Europeans could be persuaded to sharply increase the current birth rate. In that unlikely case it would take at least two decades for a generation to become visible in the labour market.
Many industrial processes and services can be designed through additional automation in such a way that even fewer human resources are needed than now. This may mitigate the bottleneck somewhat, but would not eliminate it.
If there is no quick turnaround, Europe’s economies will inevitably enter a shrinking process.
The only possible countermeasure is to enter the global competition and attract talent for the known gaps in the labour market. This has been crystal clear for a long time, but fear of traditionalist and conservative voters’ sensitivities has led to most governments to only address the issue in the abstract and try to cook the necessary debates on a low flame. Slogans like "We are not a country of immigration" earn significantly more public applause in Europe than "We urgently need lots of immigrants". Yet everyone knows from their own experience that when a tooth hurts, it is better to go straight to the dentist. Postponing the treatment makes the pain worse.
The fight for human talents is not much different from the struggle for other scarce resources such as raw materials or technical components. The difference is that the competition for material things is rarely a source of cultural friction. Imported goods and commodities don’t arouse sensitivities among traditionalist voters. When it comes to human migration however, public decision makers tend to tread more cautiously and thus do not give the issue the visibility which corresponds to its actual relevance.
The Europeans are now operating a "Blue Card" system, which allows people from outside the Union to take jobs offered to them and apply for nationality after five years. This is a relatively arduous path for applicants. The “Blue Card” approach is less attractive than the more successful American "Green Card" system in which holders are granted permanent residency from the outset, and after five years they can apply for US citizenship.
Under the present circumstances the winners in the competition for talent are likely to be those countries that have a tradition of continuous immigration, have a long history of selective immigration and have the lowest bureaucratic barriers for immigrants who fit into their labour markets. These would be, for example, Canada, the USA and Australia.
4. Migration from outside the European Union: refugees, skilled or unskilled
The right to be granted asylum is not only enshrined in national constitutions and laws, it is also based on:
The right to asylum protects people irrespective of their origin who are exposed to political, racial or religious persecution in their home country. These rules, born out of painful historical experiences that includes the societies of Europe itself, are more than set in stone. All European national states are firmly bound by them. Debates about their abolition are as pointless as those about the abolition of gravity. Yet they are common.
The legal criteria do not extend to refugees who seek to migrate to another country for economic or climatic reasons and who are therefore unlikely to be regarded as refugees from a legal perspective. In order not to be classified unfavourably, refugees may exaggerate or embellish stories of persecution in their country of origin. It is difficult for the authorities of the receiving countries to properly verify the truth of such statements.
The examination procedures are complicated and take a long time. Even if an application is rejected, expulsion to the country of origin tends to be the exception. Suffice it to say that the length of procedures creates new social realities as applicants more or less take root, children are born and are shaped by the national school system.
Growing influx of refugees
The number of refugees is considerable and on average it has been increasing strongly over the years. According to Eurostat's findings, the number of asylum seekers in the Union in 2022 was 881,220 persons, up by 64% compared with 2021. Once individuals have been recognised as eligible for asylum, a second wave of immigration begins when family members are allowed to join them.
Some member states of the Union pursue a restrictive policy by enforcing the legal requirements very strictly or selectively, or even by infringing them. This leads to greater refugee flows to those countries that comply more closely with the rules.
As the authorities of the countries with the highest numbers of refugees become increasingly overloaded with examination procedures, processing times are getting longer. The accommodation of asylum seekers in camps is pushing municipal administrations to the limits of their capacity.
Xenophobic currents in the public debate are gaining support. Surprisingly, part of the growing opposition consists of former refugees and their descendants born or raised in the country who have obtained citizenship and successfully achieved social status in their new homeland.
When frightened or even traumatised people from a different cultural background enter a European country for the first time, their first impressions have a powerful influence on how they think and feel. In the case of many refugees, their first experiences are often crowded refugee camps, questioning, long waiting times, further questioning, etc. Bureaucracy weighs them down, and there is no end in sight.
While they are in limbo for a long time, the idea that dealing with bureaucracy is the way to a better life is imprinted in the immigrants' minds. This puts people on the wrong mental tracks and impairs their chances to settle in an industrial society. While they may become adept at filling out forms, they are missing essential cultural impulses and opportunities to learn and improve on valuable skillsets for an industrial economy.
The material interests of the immigration countries
If the member states want to maintain their prosperity, a proper discussion on immigration would mean that all four categories need to be considered.
The first two categories (HNWIs and citizens of other EU countries) do not pose major problems.
The third category ("Blue Card programme") is presently far too small. So a more thorough approach is needed.
This thorough approach could involve giving priority to pre-skilled immigrants from outside the European Union. Labour offices and companies know exactly which human resources are needed. This can be done with low bureaucratic barriers, high-quality language courses to introduce immigrants to the national mentality, help in finding accommodation and schools for children, advice on access to banks and tax advisors, and perhaps even tax holidays for a few years. The threshold before obtaining citizenship should be low for people who prove to be valuable contributors. Employers can be involved in the process of accelerating integration as they themselves have a legitimate interest of their own and will be supportive.
The approach to dealing with the fourth category (asylum seekers) can be to abandon the illusory goal of carefully assessing at the outset whether an asylum seeker has a legal right to stay. Any person whose identity has been verified, who has not already applied for asylum in another member state of the Union and against whom there are no security concerns, should immediately be offered a language course and a first job determined by the labour authorities. This is inconvenient for the applicants, but it provides them with a primary orientation and momentum. It is also more beneficial to their human dignity than the endless dependency on bureaucratic processes. If they prove themselves within a year, for example, they should be given a residence permit and the right to choose a job. This would also give a chance to people who would not be entitled to asylum but who fit into the labour market.
Formal procedures for asylum applications would be resumed only for applicants who cannot be integrated into the country's labour market. Applicants who do not meet the criteria for asylum should be included. Delinquent applicants should be excluded.
For the labour market, the reason for entering the country is not relevant. What counts is a committed and reliable workforce. So the primary responsibility here should lie with labour ministries and administration, while the overburdened immigration authorities are given some air to breathe.
War-disabled, traumatised and seriously ill people should continue to be given special protection and attention. Unfortunately, their number is not small.
Canada, a country with not quite 39 million inhabitants, is an example of a country that derives and updates its demographic needs very accurately from the labour market. There are numerous national and regional programmes that make it easy for needed immigrants to quickly gain a foothold in the country. And the country additionally uses the pool of asylum seekers to enrich the labour market.
“ . . . the Government of Canada is maintaining its target of 485,000 permanent residents for 2024 and completing the final step to reach 500,000 in 2025. Starting in 2026, the government will stabilize permanent resident levels at 500,000, allowing time for successful integration, while continuing to augment Canada’s labour market.”
The demographic gap in European countries is a well-documented fact. The EU's population is ageing and shrinking, and there are not enough people to replace the working population.
This demographic contraction will lead to a decline in economic performance and prosperity. The only way to avoid this is through well-managed immigration.
Traditionalists and xenophobes are against immigration, but they have no realistic solutions to the demographic gap. If we give in to them, we will condemn our economies to decline.
To develop a successful immigration programme, we should look to countries with a long history of immigration . These countries have shown that it is possible to manage immigration in a way that benefits both the host country and the immigrants.