This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database or similar sources and are therefore entirely realistic, even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.
Errol was a medical archivist, or so it said in his job description. The reality was that Errol made a vocation out of cleverly avoiding work as much as possible. He also didn’t much favor change of any sort and had firm views on computerization.
In contrast, Pamela had risen to be the manager of the medical records department precisely because she worked harder than her peers, really thought about how to improve things, and embraced opportunities to use technology to better serve her internal customers. Errol drove Pamela to distraction. Pamela sometimes reflected on the “Errol issue” during her weekly scheduled reflective period in which she thought of ways to improve her department. It seemed to her that Errol wasn’t just reluctant to try new methods, but rather that he actively got in the way of progress. He didn’t mesh well and she often wished he would just integrate with the system rather than obstruct it.
One of the offshoots of these Friday afternoon reviews was a project to automate the document management of their archive. They currently had decades of paper copies, microfiche, and X-ray plates and the archive occupied an entire floor of an office block. Pamela had always thought that they needed to turn these paper and celluloid documents into online electronic copies that could be searched, accessed, and integrated from anywhere on the hospital network, but a recent conference had turned it into a priority.
Pamela had attended a seminar hosted by the World Economic Forum on the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and what they had titled as “Industry 4.0.” In this new scheme of things, there was renewed urgency to plan for technological change that would have increased velocity, scope, and systems impact. Dr. Klaus Schwab of the WEF outlined four design principles: interconnection, information transparency, technical assistance, and decentralized decisions. Pamela was transfixed, and in her breakout session, they got down and dirty about the differences between digitization, digitalization, and digital transformation. At the end of the session, she was on fire with enthusiasm, and could picture how having searchable and complete medical records at their fingertips could empower all the current users of the department, but also expand service to whole new classes of users who currently had no access. The bottom line was “hard copy out, digital storage in.”
Pamela was under no illusion that this would be a quick, cheap, or easy journey, but she was convinced that it was a necessary one. In her mind’s eye, she could see how digitization would require scanning in hundreds of thousands of records, and that digitalization would require her to establish a whole client server digital asset architecture, while digital transformation would require collaboration with all the user groups to establish common reference models and a business process modeling approach. The breakout session dealing with Business Process Modeling Notation showed her, at least in principle, how she could build a path to automation for many of the current labor-intensive low value tasks in her department.
The existing storage solution consisted of powered high density mobile shelving, which for its time was a really effective way to house physical records. The units stood 2,350 mm high by 550 cm deep in rows that were 9 m long. Each of the rows ran on guide rails embedded in rail channels mounted in the concrete floor. The rows could be nestled up against each other or separated to gain access by winding a large capstan handle at each end or using the power driver. Each row was logically divided into four units, and each unit typically had six shelves each holding 60 document bins or folders. The whole floor housed five columns of such rows and all but one column was at least 80% of capacity. The archive was, in any language, massive.
Errol was assigned a row in the far southwest end of the archive floor. His job was to wheel a document scanner the size of a large washing machine over to the end of his row and then take one bin at a time, remove any paper clips or staples, and place the pile face down and headfirst into the feed tray. Pushing a button resulted in the documents being gobbled up and whisked through a dual scanner and comparator system that took two images of each document and stamped it with a green tick mark and a serial number if it passed or spat it out into a review bin if something was wrong. Errol was also required to do a manual inspection of a randomly selected sample and compare the images to the physical documents. The screen image helpfully highlighted key points to compare on screen; touching a green checkmark next to them on the screen indicated acceptance. Touching the red X alternatively indicated rejection and flagged the document for review. The whole thing was being monitored remotely; Pamela and the vendor could see which of the archivists was active, as well as their cycle times, review speeds, and rejection rates.
It had not taken Errol long to find a way to keep his scanner in offline mode so that Pamela couldn’t monitor his every action. He settled into a slightly leisurely pace of fetching a folder, trundling slowly to the scanner, and taking his time doing the reviews. With multiple archivists busy, and tons of planning and monitoring to do, Pamela only took a walk through the archive floor twice a day; in particular, she took a detour past Errol, who seemed to have more connectivity issues than the others. At one point, Errol wasn’t at his scanner, nor could she see him when she walked past the area in which he was working. She assumed he was in the restroom and continued her circuit back to her office.
Errol was, in fact, just hiding from her. Holding a box of fiche to his chest, he had pressed himself backward into the first movable file carriage at the very end row that abutted the wall. Despite his slower pace, Errol had indeed made some progress, removing a third of the documents from the first section. With a lighter load, the carriage remembered a feature that had not worked in over a decade. A microswitch that had lifted by 1.3 mm due to the reduced weight broke contact for the first time in 12 years. Electrons flowed down an unused circuit as an optical sensor blinked awake and examined where the carriage was. Seeing that the carriage was not in the home position, the circuit turned on a 30-amp silicon-controlled rectifier, pulled in a clutch, and a big DC motor energized, turning a sprocket that drove a chain, and the entire row moved smoothly and silently toward the wall unit in front of Errol.
By the time Errol registered that the wall of shelves was moving behind him, the mathematics of escape were quite out of the question, and before he had covered a quarter of the distance to the aisle where the scanner stood, there was no longer enough space in which to run. Errol tried briefly to clamber to the top of the unit, but vertical escape was also unavailable. The shelving moved, implacable until the circuitry was satisfied that it had found home position. With a sigh, long dormant control circuits brought the shelving unit to a smooth and dignified halt, almost precisely one half inch away from the stationary wall unit. Errol was now, one might say, fully integrated with the filing system.