Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Machine Starts

The Colossus at Bletchley Park

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
“I’d rather not try, please!” said Alice. “I’m quite content to stay here—only I am so hot and thirsty!”

Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking-Glass)

I REMEMBER A SCIENCE-FICTION FILM that featured a small group of people travelling from Earth to some distant planet. The passengers stood for the journey (the forerunner to Ryan Air?) and the males wore ankle-length dressing gowns. The females, of course, showed a bit of leg. The cabin walls were smooth, except for windows resembling portholes. There was a spiral staircase down to the engines. No sign of a computer.

Looking at that photograph (above) of the reconstruction of part of the Colossus Computer that dominated Bletchley Park during World War Two, one imagines the science-fiction writers in Hollywood preferred to go without any computer at all. The Colossus was clearly too big to fit in a tiny set (the Tardis had not been imagined yet, our rocket may have been ten or twelve feet in diameter). For some reason, the writers could not think small, miniaturization evaded them, except for the film set itself.

The rocket in this particular film did not land, pointy end down, in the Moon’s eye. Rather, the passengers, hardly tired after standing for light years without comfort-food and drink, or a visit to the toilet, found themselves lowered onto some hostile surface. No computer, of any size, was used to test the air outside. A hatch we’d not noticed opened and someone put his head out and took a sniff. For the sake of the film, the air was as fresh as Southport on the Lancashire coast. Everyone headed down the plank for a look-see. Sir Richard Branson is promising a similar service one day, isn’t he?

I recommend E.M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops”, first published in November 1909, a century ago, if you’re computing. Forster’s world with people living in pods, trapped by their dependence on technologies, has television, video-conferencing and the Internet (with different names, of course, Forster was a writer and not a scientist, and the boffins who followed felt no need to acknowledge Forster’s earlier work). Forster’s story was not filmed until 1966, for British television. By then, computers were shrinking a bit, transistors had been invented. As tied to our computers as we are in 2010, I’m guessing that we’ll reach Forster in my lifetime, or not long after it.

God knows, when Internet Explorer is down one panics. I recently had a more serious problem. My computer, a Compaq Presario purchased only four years ago, was slowing down faster than I could keep up with it.

The Compaq was my third computer. The first was a Gateway bought in late 1995 with a friend. It was so expensive that we could only get a computer by sharing the cost. Three months later the apartment was struck by lightning. The computer survived, sort of. (Other electronic and electric equipment in our apartments and next door were fried.) The Gateway needed a good deal of nursing to run after that.

I bought a second computer a year or so later, on my own: Another Gateway. My youngest brother, a computer technician, managed to keep that second machine humming for five years, and then it began coughing. I could not afford a replacement, and for several years used a computer at the Reference Library. I also was a semi-professional house- and pet-sitter, and my clients usually wanted me to send daily updates on their dogs and cats and swimming pools from their home computers to their hand-held Blackberries.

Four years ago I managed to buy the Compaq, which came with accessories left over from the year before. For free, if I’d just buy the Compaq, which was going out of date faster than a spaceship to Southport. So, I bought it.

The new computer arrived this past Wednesday. It is a Zoostorm PC, and rather nice. Bigger and better monitor, great scanner/printer, terrific sound system. Now, I know bugger all about computer specs, but it’s fast, really fast. I have Windows 7, and Bill Gates seems to have got this one right. I’ve used Macs when on house-sits, and the Windows 7 is a bit Mac-ish. I’m a fan of 7! I’m using Office 2007, which is new to me. I’m using it at this moment. I quite like it. I trust I can transfer this document to the Barking Mad blog. If I have trouble, I will be more Barking Mad than usual.

My computer technician says I should get three good years out of the Zoostorm (assuming I don’t get struck by lightning). I’m going to do a good deal more genealogical research, so the speed and design improvements will be much appreciated.

What will I do in 2013 if The Machine Stops? My eyesight is already dreadful; I might need bigger everything in three years’ time. I cannot manage a mobile phone easily now, and as much as I’d like an iPod, I have a feeling it will be awkward. My generation is wearing out; our physical abilities are becoming more limited. But I’m in thrall to this fucking technology. Aren’t we all?

Ever see the 1976 film “Logan’s Run”? People wear out at thirty in that one, according to the rules mandated by the technocrats. That was a bit of a stretch, but a young age was needed to be suitably shocking.

In three, five, ten years, my generation may turn up at Computer Central for a new model and instead of getting a sales pitch we might just be recycled as dog-food.

“Sorry, buddy, but you’re over the limit. First hatch on the right. Have a nice trip.”

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