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The trouble with computers

Nov 18, 20023 mins
Enterprise Applications

I was going to write this column about newly resigned Hewlett-Packard President (and former Compaq CEO) Michael Capellas – the best thing to happen to Compaq since Rod Canion. I say was, because before writing I always check the previous one or two columns to see if there’s anything left over which might need clarification.

So I went online to my column archive, but the column from the Nov. 4 issue wasn’t listed. I knew it had appeared – I’d read it. So I pursued the problem with Network World Fusion’s Executive Editor Adam Gaffin, who quickly found the culprit: “somebody” had labeled the column as being written by David Kearns, not Dave Kearns. The automated applications used to formulate Network World Fusion didn’t relate Dave Kearns and David Kearns.

Had a human linked the column to the index, the human would have noticed the column’s name (“Wired Windows”) and the writer’s last name (“Kearns”) were the same in both and most likely concluded that Dave Kearns and David Kearns were the same person. Automated systems, though, compared Dave to David and found no match.

While we have succeeded in automating many tasks, and while there are lots of software apps and services that could easily handle matching up “Wired Windows – Dave Kearns” with “Wired Windows – David Kearns” that ability is not present in the mundane programs we use every day (well, unless you work for Google). We’ve come to accept the computer as an intimate part of our daily life. For many it’s the primary means of communication with the rest of the world.

The computer’s major strength is that it does exactly what you tell it to do. That’s also its major weakness. We rely on the computer for routine jobs and rely so much that we frequently forget to check on its output.

Take spell checkers, for example. They verify the words we type. Not the words we meant to type, just the words we actually type. Typing “I will do that” rather than “I will not do that” won’t be caught by a spell checker or a syntax checker. If you had a logic checker, it still wouldn’t catch it. Only by rereading what you typed would you, perhaps, discover your mistake.

I’ve been caught blindly trusting the output of my computer on more than one occasion, and I’ll wager you have also. But when that mistake does come to light, remember that it was “somebody,” not some computer, who perpetrated the error.

Tip of the Week

The really neat thing about Michael Capellas — now said to be in line as the next CEO of WorldCom — is that he came to Compaq as CIO. See how far an IT executive can go? Check his resumé and replan your future. Who knows how far you might go?