Life in a database

 Posted by on February 2, 2010 at 7:23 am
Feb 022010

columbia intelligent imaging labMost of my work the last few decades have involved that interface… that point of contact between human beings and the computer.

I’ve written previously about my earliest experience with computers in the 1970s, while still in high school, where I advocated for the first computer programming course at Colby High School.  We ran our simple Basic programs from punch cards on a mainframe 100 miles away, and we had to drive there in a car to do so!  So much for digital efficiency.

Since then I’ve taken some classes to learn Visual Basic and C++, but quickly decided I didn’t want to spend a lot of my time writing code.  Still, it’s nice to have an idea of what is actually going on behind the screens. When I was started editing a regional gay newspaper in the 1980s and 90s we used Word for DOS, dial-up telephone modems (we had to upgrade the phone lines for a touch tone system), and bulletin boards (BBS) to transmit news reports across the state and eventually from around the country.

I barely remember now how complex and alien all of that seemed at the time:  bitrates and protocols and drivers, oh my!  Still, I learned what I needed to learn to bring information to people who were otherwise isolated or felt separated from their own community.

By 2000, my major foray into the corporate world resulted in the title of “database specialist”, though my job was in the Marketing Department.  I had the best (and worst) of the two most coveted departments in most companies:  IS and Marketing.  My job was to make the company look as good as possible without blatantly lying.  Exaggerating chart curves in Excel by changing the axis range, for example.

I also quickly picked up the arcane workings of GeoAccess, a program used to plot distances and map potential members in relationship to the plan’s providers. My job was secured when I could print impressively colored maps that in reality said very little about our company’s ability to provide medical services, if you ask me.

Lately, when I’m not playing with the puppies or helping friends, I’m blogging, tracking website growth in particular areas of interest or learning about some of the latest cool web development tools.

It was pretty easy to understand how numbers and codes can be stored in a database and “queried” to present reports, or to drive other projects.  We did that in our high school projects.

I also understand pretty well how the text for news reports were stored in data files and later placed graphically in a logical pattern on the pages of a newspaper. Photos and images are simply an arrangement of dots on a white space, so the transition to a digital format is a straightforward one.

Even this blog is stored in a database “out there” somewhere and I keep backup files on a little disk on my desk in front of me (in case you’re a hacker).

Numbers, text and pictures.  I get that.

What is on my mind is something I’ve had to think about before.  How did irrational and emotional human beings like us ever develop and then fall so deeply in love with rational technology, especially computers?

This line of thinking has come to a head lately as I have also spent some time this  past year serving as a moderator at a discussion forum that can get pretty heated at times.  I have also been observing how individuals interact with an online community:  others who they have never met personally and are not likely to do so in their lifetime.  It’s not always pretty.

What struck me as I was responding to a member’s recent question about a significant move at the forum, was how nearly ten years of debate and conversations… anger and joy…  frustrations and resolutions… were stored as ones and zeros (data bits) that could be moved around the globe in a few heartbeats. I find the work of integrating the digital with the human psyche fascinating, rewarding, and on days like yesterday, just a bit frightening.

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