Nine Algorithms That Changed the Future: The Ingenious Ideas That Drive Today's Computers

By John Maccormick | Go to book overview

8
Databases: The Quest for Consistency

“Data! data! data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without
clay.”

—SHERLOCK HOLMES IN ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE’S
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

Consider the following arcane ritual. A person takes from a desk a specially printed pad of paper (known as a checkbook), writes some numbers on it, and adds a signature with a flourish. The person then tears the top sheet from the pad, puts it in an envelope, and sticks another piece of paper (known as a stamp) on the front of the envelope. Finally, the person carries the envelope outside and down the street, to a large box where the envelope is deposited.

Until the turn of the 21st century, this was the monthly ritual of anyone paying a bill: phone bills, electric bills, credit card bills, and so on. Since then, systems of online bill payment and online banking have evolved. The simplicity and convenience of these systems makes the previous paper-based method seem almost ludicrously laborious and inefficient by comparison.

What technologies have enabled this transformation? The most obvious answer is the arrival of the internet, without which online communication of any form would be impossible. Another crucial technology is public key cryptography, which we already discussed in chapter 4. Without public key crypto, sensitive financial information could not be securely transmitted over the internet. There is, however, at least one other technology that is essential for online transactions: the database. As computer users, most of us are blissfully unaware of it, but virtually all of our online transactions are processed using sophisticated database techniques, developed by computer scientists since the 1970s.

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