The Lost Era of Reliability

We can no longer count on politicians, media or even the latest technology.


Andy Kessler

Photoshopping the then-missing princess of Wales. The press twisting Donald Trump’s “bloodbath” comment out of context. AT&T Wireless down for hours. And (gasp!) Instagram offline. Is anything reliable anymore?

Reliability is a lost art. Our electricity used to be so steady that plugged-in wall clocks rarely needed adjusting. That’s funny now because power outages are so commonplace. Heck, we now schedule rolling blackouts in California—forced failure.

Back then, the electric grid and phone system were designed for “five 9s” or 99.999% reliability—five minutes of unscheduled downtime a year. Last month, 

AT&T’s cellular network went down for around 11 hours. No TikTok? The horror. AT&T provided $5 credits to customers. Thanks for nothing. Today’s reality is that we’re preconditioned to accept failure.

When did things change? My guess is after the July 13-14, 1977, New York City blackout, which happened during a heat wave. The result was fires, looting and fear that the “Son of Sam” serial killer would kill again. After that, we became thankful for outages lasting only an hour.

Folks used to repair toasters. Now they’re disposable. For many items, when a piece of cheap plastic breaks, we chuck it and buy another one, including televisions and many appliances cheap enough to replace. Sadly, our trust in everyday things is now disposable as well.

Early Windows PCs would seemingly crash daily, with the infamous “blue screen of death.” My business partner would immediately yell, “Curse you, Bill Gates.” Cable-TV outages are common and internet service is spotty. Customer service tells you, “Unplug your cable modem and router and plug them back in.” Gee thanks. Streaming services are no better; if one day my oven and dishwasher both showed an F20 error code. I toggled their circuit breakers. My coffee machine often blinks orange. This lack of reliability is built into the price of things. But even iPhones need an occasional power cycle to work again.

Highways were built with “breakdown lanes” for a reason. Now, digital controls and sensors mean cars don’t break as often, but we’re stuck driving with the “check engine” idiot light and “service overdue by 3,500 miles” warnings because they turn into $1,500 visits to the dealer to flip a switch. I’m not sure that’s progress. My entertainment system often reboots halfway through the song “I Can’t Drive 55.” 

I can’t remember the last time a flight of mine was on time. Plus, I now keep my seat belt fastened the entire flight, not because of turbulence but in case of loose bolts and flying door plugs.

Generative AI like ChatGPT single-handedly brought the long-dormant word “hallucinations” back from the 1970s. Google recently announced it’s paying $60 million to Reddit to train AI models, almost guaranteeing more incoherence, conspiracy theories and Roaring Kitty of Gamestop-hype ramblings in their results, which already can’t tell you if Elon Musk or Hitler is worse for society.

Data breaches happen almost daily. They’re considered normal. We pay for this complacency elsewhere, especially as our indifference to reliability has jumped from products to politics.

We know the media is unreliable, recently falsely smearing quarterback Aaron Rodgers after it leaked that he might be RFK Jr.’s running mate. It’s obvious that the media is biased, but we shrug. Same for a lot of what is posted on 

Lockdowns. Six-foot social distancing. Closed schools. In retrospect, all unnecessary. “Follow the science” doesn’t work when the “science” is unreliable. Same for politicians. Rep. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) talked up Trump-Russia election collusion again and again, then refused to release transcripts of Obama administration officials testifying under oath that they’d seen no evidence of it. It turns out this unreliability is a promotable offense—Mr. Schiff is leading in the race to be California’s next senator.

Princess Kate’s “photo-gate” broke trust, a far cry from King George VI’s 1939 speech to “stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial.” Add Al Gore’s polar bears, Barack Obama’s “you can keep your doctor.” Why would anyone listen to these folks ever again? But we do.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said “the border is closed” when it clearly wasn’t. President Biden and Nancy Pelosi focus more on using the term “undocumented” instead of “illegal” rather than cleaning up the border mess. Donald Trump still complains about stolen elections that weren’t stolen or were they. We used to hold politicians accountable. Not anymore.

Trust is the flip side of reliability. I’m OK with not trusting a toaster, because it’s replaceable. Politicians, on the other hand, tend to stick around for way too long—see this year’s presidential race. The loss of reliability is so deeply ingrained in society, yet nobody cares. How do we fix that?