Thursday, August 26, 2010

You Can't Lie Your Way Out Of Faulty Technology

The thing about technology bugs is that they so often can make you laugh and cry at the same time. This was certainly the case several years ago when a Canadian furniture chain apparently used the N-word in a brand name for a particular fabric shade of brown, an error that was traced back to a piece of "name-inventing" software that had been written in China. The error reported this morning on the BBC News Web site is far less insulting but no less disturbing in the culture of fear that has been cultivated by our warped sense of homeland security:

High street [pharmacy] chain Boots has apologised for sending a man a loyalty card in the name of 'Dr A Suicide Bomber.'

Andrew Adams , 63, of Swansea, said it was "unbelievable" that the company issued him the card.

He said he had not applied for it and did not shop at the store in the city very often.

The recipient of the card provided the BBC with the necessary reality check:

Father-of-four Mr Adams, a retired lorry driver, said: "I'm not a doctor and I'm certainly not a suicide bomber. …"

What interests me more, however, is the official response to this incident that Boots provided through a company spokesperson:

We are very sorry for any upset that Mr Adams has experienced and we are liaising directly with him.

As soon as we were aware of this incident, we immediately triggered a full and detailed investigation into how this appalling hoax was able to occur.

This has included a comprehensive audit and a review of the systems in place to prevent such behaviours taking place again.

We have technology in place to prevent offensive terminology and potential fraudulent names being used.

In terms of simple honesty, however, Adams himself provided a much more accurate statement:

Apparently they have a system on their computer where certain words are flagged up - somebody should have been monitoring to make sure this was not sent.

Adams recognized that one cannot rely on technology "to prevent offensive terminology and potential fraudulent names being used," thus exposing the key falsehood in the official statement. He acknowledged the need for both that qualifying adverb "apparently" and the presence of a "human in the loop" to monitor the results of any technology in the system. In a way it is a pity that Adams has now retired. He seems to have a better understanding of the relationship between people and technology than the entirety of the Boots technology support team.

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