Saturday, December 18, 2010

How long is that name field?

Oh, everybody knows first and last names fit in 20 characters, right? Well, ok, maybe 32. Or maybe 50, to account for some edge cases like this. Right? No, wrong. How about 590 characters for a last name, plus 25 middle names and a suffix of Senior? What happens to this guy's identity when he comes into the office to be registered in some computer system?

And everybody knows that, in the US, everyone has a social security number, right? Well, at least those on some payroll database. Sure, unless you're one of those that has many, or one of those whose social security number has changed over time. Does that mean that the HR department cannot keep track of your identity because someone in the IT department assumed that "one person" is identical to "one social security number"?

If the software cannot handle the identifiers used to determine your identity, does that mean you don't exist? For example, what happens if you are Chinese, but the characters used in your name are not supported for input in computer systems?

These are fascinating problems, because they illustrate how absolutely limited (and limiting) our software can be when we allow reality to be defined by computer programs. You might want to read Data and Reality, by William Kent. Some excerpts are available here.

Now, what happens when we allow software to alter our behavior so it fits into certain patterns? Don't we become a mindless gear in someone else's machinery? For what purpose? And who benefits? Maybe we shouldn't celebrate some of today's "technological advances" so much...

2 comments:

Philippe said...

This Is America, Take Your Unicode Somewhere Else

Sean DeNigris said...

The timing of this post is perfect. I have been struggling with how to fit data for my current Smalltalk app, which covers a huge domain, into the oversimplified world of a computer. Data and Reality sounds fascinating; I just ordered a copy from Amazon. Thanks, Andrés.