The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

A Database’s Tale

Posted by The Futility Monster on November 21, 2009 @ 10:03

It all looks so innocent. Actually, no it doesn't. The big bad database is coming to get you. Woo!

One of the things I find most intriguing about technology is how it, invariably, ends up expanding to be far more than it was ever intended to be. A security system to be certain who is in a building in the event of a fire, for instance, soon turns into a clocking-in and clocking-out system for employees. Then it is used to make sure people are working their right hours, resulting in people getting sacked…

Then there is the tale of CCTV on a business premises, ostensibly for security, and then it ends up being used by the boss to make sure the employees aren’t doing things they shouldn’t, or merely slacking.

Then there is the story of how a person saw how his mother was struggling to cope with a bureaucratic nightmare her employers had placed upon her, and decided to help her out by designing a database which would hold all the info, allow her to produce the reports her bosses had asked her for, and get rid of masses of paperwork.

All good stuff. The database stayed in the personal possession of the mother. It was just a tool for her to make her job run smoothly. The employers knew nothing about it. They were clueless about technology, and didn’t understand where the magical automatic reports were appearing from. For all they knew they were just being written in a word processor.

But no. There was computery jiggery-pokery going on, using the powerful functions of Microsoft Access that any old fool who does an ICT course could soon, well, access.

A couple of years went by, and the bosses changed. All of a sudden, the new leader liked these reports, and wanted to see more of them, distributed more widely in the organisation.

In fact, he wanted the organisation in question to take control of the database, so that it could be kept up-to-date all the time in the event of absence. The mother agreed, and trained up a few other members of staff to understand how it worked, and how to generate the reports.

Then the new boss thought about the current data that was being collected, and decided more should be added to it. This would allow further cross-referencing of it to produce even more reports.

Then he decided there was so much data from so many years that it would be remiss of the organisation to not use it to its full potential. So he ordered a statistical analysis of it over the time to see if there were trends that could be picked up, or points of interest that should be targetted more appropriately.

After that, yet more data was added, with more queries (cross-referencing) and more reports. Many of these reports became personal, analysis of the performance of certain members of staff. The reports then started to be used in staff appraisals, and even disciplinary proceedings, making the trade unions quite interested in the database too, and whether the Data Protection Act was being applied correctly.

All this from such humble beginnings, and with such a simple goal from the outset, to make this person’s mother avoid unnecessary stress from extra bureaucracy.

Databases grow. That is what they’re designed to do. They become more and more useful over time. People see how just an apparent little tweak can make things so much easier and more interesting for everyone. Then that accelerates and becomes more useful. A self-fulfilling prophecy, if we reach for the clichés.

This is why I oppose the ID card and the national database behind it. It has the potential to be too useful. Once you start down a path of data collection, it is all too easy to just keep adding, continuously accumulating, because such a little addition can’t possibly be any more intrusive, can it?

Putting that much power in the hands of anyone, particularly the state, is fundamentally wrong.

The important principle is never to start. Never to concede. Because who knows where you’ll end up.

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