Nero fiddles

An excellent piece in the Times from Ian Angell, Professor of Information Systems at LSE. He captures nicely the magical thinking of the IT-ignorant:

Ms Smith is also yet another Home Secretary who subscribes to the “pixie dust” school of technology: computation is a magic substance to be sprinkled over problems, that, hey presto, then vanish. Little wonder that Britain has an appalling record in government IT projects.

Although the subject-matter is the latest announcements on ID cards, this also has relevance for Contactpoint, eCAF et al:

The only property that all systems have in common is that they fail. And the bigger the system – 60 million entries on a compulsory ID card database – the greater the opportunity of failure. Systems are much like any life form: they degrade over time, they entropy. In the case of databases, the pick up errors and then build data error upon error.

For the last few years, whenever I’ve thought about the government’s ceaseless preoccupation with the fantasy of the omniscient database, a few lines of an Auden poem have kept popping into my head:

O dear white children casual as birds
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did

Government demonstrably doesn’t understand the fundamentals of IT, but have they even considered for a moment the social impact of their bungling attempts at taking our private data and putting it on joined-up systems? Once our data is ‘out there’ it can never be retrieved. Frankly, government policy feels about as safe as visiting a hobby brain surgeon.

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