Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mail Merge and the Dystopian Future

My wife was asked to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of our couple-friends, A and E.  She gets to throw the California edition of their bridal shower -- the cool coed one with all their west coast friends, instead of the "traditional" one with the mothers in the midwest.  Of course, throwing a party means sending invitations, and this shindig is just fancy enough to earn real paper invites.

Being proud owners of a computer, we figured mail merge in MS Office would be the best way to address the envelopes.  Labor saving devices, for the win!

It was then that I discovered: doing a mail merge is a sneak peek into the dystopian future.

For one thing, I think the home printer is the modern embodiment of the ancient nightmare of the Golem: a clay mannequin that hyper-literally follows directions even beyond it's creator's intent. It doesn't surprise me that a printer is short on self-knowledge; for $80 I don't exactly expect Caprica Six. Still, it seems like a 21st century gadget shouldn't eat my fancy stationery, apply self destructive force, or squirt ink all over its paper-handling surfaces.

The entire phenomenon of paper jams stems from the printer lacking the sensory organs to inform wiser decisions that its motors could already follow: back up, slow down, apply a little more friction.  I don't have a lot of perception of my inner workings, either, but I've got plenty of nerves in my fingertips, out where I do my work.

It gets scary when you apply this cautionary tale to dangerous robots.  Will self-driving cars be able to feel the tire shudder of an alignment problem?  The smell of burning oil?  The sight of smoke billowing from under the hood?  (On an unrelated note, does anyone want to buy my 1989 Mercedes 560SL?  Cheap!)  Doesn't my shredder find it a little suspicious when I fight back as it digests my tie?  I can hear the motor struggling to keep strangling me!

The second glimpse into the abyss came from the software half of the equation.  This isn't going to be a big party, we were only addressing 30ish envelopes.  Still, in that small pool of data, we had one person without an address, one significant other without a last name (who entertainingly printed as "Mr. Steve"), and two cases of hidden whitespace after first names.  A is actually a very conscientious and detail oriented person, so the three wasted envelopes aren't a reflection on her, they're typical of every database in my experience.  Data entry isn't fun or glamorous, and choosing tools like Excel that don't impose a structure on our data means that this happens all the time.

How will crummy data contribute to the end of the world?  Well, there's the ID making scene in Idiocracy.  The episode of King of the Hill where the bureaucrats mark Hank's license "Female."  The software bug that killed three people with radiation overdoses.  When imperfect people give imperfect data to overly confident machines, the machines can make bad decisions quickly, backed by hulking robot strength.

There you have it: This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a printer.

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