Should we trust technology?

At the risk of sounding Asimov-ian, should we trust “the machines?”

Take my retired mother-in-law. She uses a computer daily: e-mailing her children and grandchildren, researching her frequent travel plans online. She’s relatively advanced for being introduced to the personal computer after sixth sevenths of her life has gone by.

Her issue is less one of technical savviness than simply of trust. She almost lost her hard drive once, including some digital photos. She’s now so afraid to download them to her PC and delete them from her camera’s storage card, that she’s convinced my father-in-law to purchase multiple storage cards to store all their photos. When one gets full, they just start another. In her mind, it’s the lesser of two evils.

I laughed at first, then got annoyed that she didn’t trust technology and wasn’t taking advantage of it (my tech snobbery bubbling over). You’d think Google, Facebook and Twitter would be on my side, but in fact, they’re validating my mother-in-law’s fears.

In less than a week, Google’s Gmail suffered two mass outages, as frustrated users sent sales of replacement keyboards and Rogain up sharply. Google burned up some goodwill this week, and reminded everyone that nothing is failsafe. Worse, it hurt its credibility promoting the next big thing – cloud computing – where people use applications and software, like office applications, over the Internet instead of being hosted on individual PCs. When the cloud gets hazy or disappears, or the connection is broken, and there are multiple fail points, then the justification and cost savings for cloud computing goes up in smoke.

Ironically, much of the complaining about Gmail’s outage could be found on micro-blogging application Twitter, which itself is approaching legendary status for its frequent outages. A VC cash infusion to Twitter operators this spring was supposed to correct the technical flimsiness, but hiccups and whining persists. Twitter’s infamous fail whale is becoming the poster child for unreliable technology.

As more people live their lives online, posting personal videos and photos and information on social networks, is there any confidence that the content will be available, always, when we need or want? Or should a small company or entrepreneur trust cloud computing, leaving business-critical functions partially in the hands of someone else whose servers may or may not collapse or be hacked some day?

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